Flying Cowboys

I’m having a moment.

Potatoes are steaming on the stove top, garlic cloves on the cutting board, and Rickie Lee Jones on the turntable. It’s 2016, and I haven’t heard “Flying Cowboys” in at least a decade.

In this moment, making dinner in the kitchen, the wind whips through the trees outside. A tropical mist drizzles our island in grays, sputtering in gusts of chilly downpours. This minor nip has me cranking the oven, baking, and feeling cozy.

Jeb is taking care of some laundry in his room. The Bohemian (rained in) is taking a rare pause, reading a travel magazine and sharing a glass of red wine with me.

I stand at the stove, a living snapshot of warm domesticity, when the familiar intro notes of “Flying Cowboys” needles out from the vinyl on the record player. Just as one whiff of tomato soup can transport you to your grandmother’s kitchen thirty years ago, this guitar riff instantly sends me to the year I turned 21.

Twenty years old in Pacific Beach, California, I was trying to find my place in a town where I didn’t know how to do the parties, and I was always getting sunburnt. Just when I felt completely lost, I met a man twice my age, his chest-length beard gleamed with almond oil in the La Jolla sun. Having recently left a Sikh ashram after 20 years of devotion, he’d moved to the beach, and unleashed his long locks from the confines of his turban. At a time when my Religious Studies classes weren’t reaching me, this man walked the sands by my side, talking about the Infinite.

That which there is no greater.

And that, I couldn’t really fathom. So I knew it was as close to God as I had ever come.

I’ll call my friend “the Guide”, as he came into my life-like a signpost, pointing to paths I hadn’t seen before. Figuratively, he led me to new terrain. Literally, we took a lot of walks together. Often, we meandered the coastline, sometimes spanning the length of several towns. We drank fresh-squeezed orange juice, ate mung beans and rice with garam masala, and listened to plenty of music. Our soundtrack was Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Deep Forest. And driving in my Subaru, the constant in the tape deck was Rickie Lee Jones.

The Guide encouraged me to face my fears, and I took him seriously. I left Pacific Beach and set out on a summer-long, solo road trip, designed to put myself in all sorts of uncomfortable and daring situations (camping alone in the forest, hiking unknown trails, ‘going with the flow’) all the while trusting (and essentially, asking for living proof) that I was divinely protected. It was my mission to convince myself that I was wholly cared for in the world, that I could face a fear and overcome it, becoming all the stronger for it. RLJ’s “Flying Cowboys” cassette was with me all the way.

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Now, 42 years old in the kitchen, a 12-year old boy down the hall, and a husband in a nearby chair, the nearly 21-year old me, boulder hopping around Smith Rock, Oregon seems distant, until the music.

Standing on the cliffs today
I thought I saw you below
my shadow growing smaller…

Rickie’s words fall, full and sweet, over carefully plucked guitar strings.

Her longing melody brims, all tongue and teeth inside her mouth, swirling sound, then spilling:

Were you walking on the water?
Playing in the sun?
But the world is turning faster
Then it did when I was young
When I was young

At Smith Rock, I climbed to the top of rock peaks, as far as I could go without ropes. I dared to linger and dip in the river, even when I saw bobcat scat on the boulders. I reached a long arm to snap a photo of myself in the reeds, recording a solo moment long before ‘selfies’ had a name.

The irony of the song lyrics positions me on a timeline, simultaneously experiencing their truth in both past and present. The familiar notes of a song I haven’t heard in years, washes through me in my little Hawaii kitchen. I feel time and space viscerally. I am having a moment with steaming potatoes, my skin tingling, my heart open. I am happy and grateful in broadening perspective.

“Mom, it’s so unfair!”

Jeb has left his laundry, entering my musical moment, grumpy-faced.

Jolted from my reverie, my ears are now filled with the woeful tale of confusing directions on an English final, missed points, and a resulting lowered score. His grievance has drowned out “Flying Cowboys,” though Rickie is still scatting the refrain, “oh, when I was young…”

I’m far from the riverside grasses of Smith Rock now. There is a disappointed tween in my midst, and garlic cloves wait to be chopped.

Back in my cassette days with Rickie Lee Jones, this present kitchen scene was what my heart had truly wanted, though in my dreams it was only warm and fuzzy. I didn’t imagine all of the emotional intricacies that parenthood and house holding would entail.

Some days it’s only cutting vegetables and homework, and I don’t even see the shadow of transcendence. Other days, I can sense a sweetness beckoning to be fully felt, but am, somehow, afraid to let it in.

By grace (and oftentimes, a good song), there are, occasionally, the kitchen moments, reverberating like a well-struck chord. Granted from somewhere beyond time and space, they may only ring for an instant, but they hint at the depths I still cannot fathom.

That which there is no greater.

I still do not understand it.

But, sometimes, when the music plays, I feel it.

 

Tracking the Thread

Scent can seal a moment and rewind time with one sniff.

An ineffable elixir, invisible, and hard to hold, yet smell can be a solid, guiding principle.

Just ask our puppy, Mae. She’s a tracker, and she follows her nose. Dogs live by their senses, and olfactories reign supreme.

Mae interacts with the world through her sniffer. Purely instinctual, no apologies. Her brown, damp schnozz, presses into everything, indiscriminate. No intellect, just genuine curiosity.

Her nostrils quiver in utter wonder. There is no self-consciousness in breathing in the most alien of objects, deeply. She wants to know this thing, and know its very essence.

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Mae’s first time sniffing salt and sea

 

Some ancient peoples (Hawaiians, included) greet one another by coming face to face, breathing in each other’s breath. In this full and intimate introduction, one cannot hide. An exhale, empty of words, can’t lie.

Scent speaks. It is felt to the bones. Scent ignites the mind, yet is not of it.

I’ve been on my own interior trail, following my nose, listening to instinct. As an artist, as a writer, I thought I’d lost the scent there for a while. I was circling, just sniffing around, unsure.

But then the winds shifted, and there was a trace of something in the air. I dared to follow.

Attending a writing workshop this past weekend seemed to set me back upon my path. When asked to bring a piece of writing to the class with us, I chose William Stafford’s “The Way it Is.” One, because the poem is an anchor for me in my storytelling quest. And, two, because I was beginning to wonder if I had simply lost my personal thread. I hoped that through reciting the words, I may find my way again.

Gratefully, in the small room of writers with huge talent, I caught up with the thread that’s never left me. Their generously kind hearts and the keen insight of our instructor, Cheryl Strayed, reminded me to the familiar fragrance of my truest self.

We’ve all got the thread. The trail we’re tracking with all of our senses, mind, body and heart. We may get stalled, circle, or lose the scent, but maybe we are never truly lost. We just have to keep poking around, with utter curiosity, no apologies…following our noses.

“The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

~ William Stafford ~”

Rekindling

This morning I had to shuffle through carcasses of unfinished drafts scattered across my desktop. Last week left a holding pen of limbo, posts for the blog that never made it, leaving the Archives blank and my mind in question.

I’ve written all of my life, journaling, submitting work, studying literature in college, and sharing in this blog forum for the last five years. My writing has had different phases, different focus and meaning over the years, but I don’t recall that I’ve ever questioned its place in my life. It has always been here, it has always been a part of me.

These past few weeks, however, I found myself wondering about words, especially my own. Questioning their necessity, and feeling like there were too many streaming from my fingertips, that simply were unnecessary. I’d been finding solace in silence, though I questioned even that, as a possible avoidance tactic from something I was too afraid to face.

I was enjoying the ease found in implementing daily tasks. Even washing dishes had more appeal than putting my heart to paper, as a practical kitchen task had a beginning, an end, and was completely mindless. In ten minutes, I could see the accomplishments of my work in a clean sink. My creative endeavors, on the other hand, are rarely ever tidy.

It was nerves, as well. Last week was edging me ever-closer to the writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed, an accomplished writer, well-known for her bestselling book-turned-movie, “Wild.” I would be among a fortunate sixteen participants to spend two full days in her tutelage, learning about “The Story You Have to Tell.” Like so many, I had immersed myself in “Wild,” almost not wanting her to reach the Bridge of the Gods, the finish line of her 1100 mile solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. That bridge would mean the final chapter, and “Wild” was a book I didn’t want to end.

courtesy of www.cherylstrayed.com
courtesy of http://www.cherylstrayed.com

 

The book is about a young woman finding her way, while I am a middle-aged mother/wife/writer, feeling more disoriented than I did when I was in my thirties, raising a five-year old, alone. Disoriented in my creative writing life, that is. My external world is the most settled its ever been in my 42 years. Health, love, family, home. There can be the usual modern-day stresses, but my basic human needs are gratefully covered.

But the words. They would come, and then fall flat. Five days before the workshop, I stood in my kitchen chopping onions, and dared to consider it. Blasphemous in even thinking the thought…be damned, I entertained it anyway. What if I just pulled out? I could call the workshop coordinator and explain that I couldn’t come. My decline would softened by the boon that the next person in line on the long waiting list would get to attend. Right?

The onions were minced, as I observed the inner wrestling of mind and heart. To fantasize of walking away from such an opportunity, clearly showed my current state of unrest in my work. I took note of the fear, but did not act. I knew I had to go, even if it would be with a proverbial prostration at the door, and potentially nothing for the prompts. I settled with the decision that the least (or maybe the most) that I could do, was simply show up.

So this weekend, I had the humbling privilege to share two full days with a room full of brilliant (and generously kind) writers. Cheryl was warm, open, succinct, and ever-giving in her support of each writer in the room. Points she clearly documented in large letters on poster paper, outlined many of the specific issues I’ve been grappling with in my words. Her writing prompts pushed me, and clumsy first passes emerged with faint hopes of future promise.

On the first day, I found myself on the edge of tears on numerous occasions, though there was no specific source of the emotions. As one writing session brought about the telling of the day my parents told me of their separation, I was amazed to find, that thirty-four years after the fact, I still could crumble in the telling of that moment. There was juice there. A story of many layers. There was a room, there were people, there was a feeling, and there were sounds. And there were still questions after all of these years. And there were questions beneath the questions. This was fertile ground, with words that were worth waiting for.

At 5:40am, I know it’s just about time to wake Jeb for school. This morning is just a grazing on the inspiration rekindled in me by a weekend with extraordinary writers. I cannot go down the path of comparison, holding my words to theirs, or I could certainly feel defeated. Instead, I dive into the beauty of story. How we all have a story to tell, something that transcends our personal experience, and resonates whole and true to all humans. A tale that brings connection, that makes us feel alive, that reminds us of the fragile grace that threads us all together in this living.

I may still be searching for just the right words, but I haven’t given up on them.