The Lucky Ones

[First published in 2017 as “The Cows of Black Rock City,” this edition will appear along with many unpublished stories in a collection of shorts for Varanasi Sage — Due out in July!]

Twinkling lights strung around its frame, chain clicking in a dry loop, my bike created tracks on tracks in the dust, crossing tracks without pattern or reason.

In the dark of night, the high desert mirrors the sky; although the stars on the ground are colored, moving and spinning, dancing chaotically. In the dark expanse, we put on our lights and become technicolor shooting stars.

By week’s end, the thin layer of dust on my bike will gather to look as though it had been left forgotten in the recesses of a workman’s garage. Dust on my clothes, my skin and my hair, in my nose, ears and lungs. By week’s end, I, too, caked with dust, will look old and forgotten.

A herd of cows appears. Dim lights twinkle from their insides, differentiating them from the dust and darkness. Stationary, unafraid, wooden skeletons wrapped in translucent nylon. 

In the darkness of the playa, amongst dust and art, these are the lucky ones. Peaceful bovines, sacred cows, abundant goddesses of nourishment.  Their twinkling lights, the same as my own; viewing passing delights. Busses dressed like sheep and lighthouses, cars like genie lamps, golf cart abstract art, and bodies radically expressing themselves.

Our shared reality outside this city — the distortion of divine nature, the degradation of life by human command. Here they are not an exploitable object; a living, feeling being trapped in a pit of manure, in line for a violent death, never having eaten a blade of grass or stepped hoof in a meadow. I am a lucky one, in the darkness of the playa, amongst dust and art; not trapped in a war torn city, used as a human shield.

The sadness of contrast, a melancholy inspection, thoughts and emotions rising from the depths of another’s creation. Here in the dust — in the middle of nowhere — surrounded by darkness and lights.

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Phuture Pasture by David Suckling for Burning Man 2017

Our Eyes Meet

We cross into Reservation land in Northern Arizona. The desert before us, a desolate beauty with colorful streaks, glows beneath the pink hue of the setting sun.

On the outskirts of town the highway curves past hills. Gathered at their base, shanties and shacks form small a small line. Broken boards, torn roofs, tires, cars and trucks appear abandoned and disregarded. But I see there are children’s toys and someone walking into a shack and others sitting on steps and chairs out front.

We pass at 60 miles per hour. The extreme poverty fades into the rear-view mirror.

We stop at a gas station just after dusk. A man walks to the car parked next to me. He is, perhaps, ten years older than me. Our eyes meet on opposite sides of the window. A thought flashes into my mind — were his parents or grandparents among the stolen children, forced into Christian boarding schools in an attempt to decimate their culture?

The lineage of oppressors claim me as their citizen.

***

Early in the morning, a jewelry maker sits in a long line of artisans in Santa Fe’s town square; they’ve rolled out their wares and tell the tourists passing by, “feel free to handle.” The jewelry maker looks like he is sleeping, with eyes closed and arms folded around the large yellow “G” on his green sweatshirt. His porcupine quill jewelry has caught my eye, and I kneel down to look.

Amongst his jewelry, I find a feather pendant that is perfect for my niece.

“Excuse me,” I say.

His eyes open.

“Sorry to bother you.”

“No bother,” he smiles.

“How much is this one?”

He tells me the price. I say I’d like to purchase it and hand it to him.

An older white man stands above us and jokes that he would never buy from a Packers fan. “At least you’re not for the Cowboy’s,” the older man says as he continues down the block.

“Never a Cowboy’s fan,” the artisan jokes back as he places the necklace on a card, carefully stringing the chain through notches that will hold it in place. “Although my mother is probably smacking me right now for saying that.”

But the older man is too far to hear him.

“Your mother likes the Cowboys?” I ask, still kneeling, admiring the porcupine quills dangling from silver earrings.

“Oh yes,” he said. “All her life. Now she has passed and I’m sure she is angry with me for saying anything bad about them.”

Our eyes meet.

“I’m sorry you’ve lost your mom. I can only imagine what that feels like.”

He sighs. “She died on the fourth of July. It’s what she wanted. She was on dialysis for twelve years. My sisters convinced her to get the treatments when she first got sick. After twelve years she was tired. Every time she came home she was like this —” he rolled his eyes back, put his arms out, and swayed his chest like he was off-balance.

“That’s a long time to endure so much pain.”

“Yes, I understand her choice,” he says. He holds the little package containing the necklace in his right hand.

“Thank you for sharing that with me,” I say, looking up at him.

“I miss her. I think I will miss her for the rest of my life.”

I take in what he has said. “I miss my Gramma more now than I did two years ago when she passed.”

He nods and I ask about the porcupine quills.

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Canyon Meditation

We chose not to look at the map and found what we believed was a path. As we walked, the forest seemed to hold us while birds sang its melody. We passed elk tracks preserved in dry mud and saw a tree that had been used as an antler scratching post. I wished I could walk without knowing our destination.

Upon hearing human voices speaking languages from all over the world, we knew we were close — and suddenly — the forest opened.

A magnetic pull from my heart led me to the canyon rim as though I were under enchantment. My body shook with adrenaline. Before me, a chasm ripped the earth and rocky, layered peaks formed colorful monuments, temples, pyramids, and fortresses. Spires and pillars rose from the ground like giants. Greater and larger than Stonehenge, than Chichen Itza, than man could ever be.

Nature’s chisel wielded by the Great Artist etched walls with shadowy crags and adornement. Creation coalescing into wonder from nearly two billion years of both violent and gradual evolution written in the rock. Lava and mud spreading and widening the canyon carved by wind and water, plateaus rising, glaciers melting, the continent crashing into volcanoes and making mountains. Erosion — pushing, pulling, forming megaliths and smiles that become wings of expanded freedom. A testament to my limited, human experience.

The river deepens the canyon as she moves to the sea — her former grandeur evidenced in decorated cliffs — she is now a mere trickle of what she must have been before dams and reservoirs closed her veins like tourniquets.

The Artist exhibits the freedom to transform, to shift — to evolve into beauty, into living inspiration.

Even with their loud voices, the other tourists don’t bother me. The vastness is large enough for us all. So large that I sense I can give all the heaviness of my heart to the canyon. All the pain of memories and attachments can release. And my heart will become expansive; my heart and the canyon will merge into one, magnetized like the continent and crashing into volcanoes. If I let it fall, it will tumble into the river and be swept away to the ocean. I can let it go — I can give it all to the One who is capable of transfiguration.

I hear the wind before I feel her. She comes up from the canyon depths and brushes my face. I feel the coolness of her touch. She is a whispering echo saying, “hush.”

Crows fly with feathers straight and light in the space between earth and sky. Above the canyon, below stars. Small, yet fearless. As we must be.

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The Broken Pot

The night before I left town, I needed to clean my house. I hate returning to a mess because it doesn’t feel restful, and the last thing I want when I get home is to feel like I have chores to do. 

Luckily, my house is fairly-tiny, and doesn’t take long to clean. I started with bathroom and then the kitchen, finishing with the floors. Everything was complete when I vacuumed my tiny living room. Except I quickly dusted my piano, realizing it was overdue, and repositioned the plants upon it.  

Satisfied with my clean home, I took a break to eat snacks before my next chore: packing. Both of my cats were downstairs with me. Sterling, a big, fat, fluffy cat laid next to the front door, which I had opened to bring in fresh air. A thin, transparent, gold curtain in the doorway kept the bugs out. My older, dominant cat, Shadow, sauntered past me towards the door. Like an arrogant king, he paused to look down at Sterling, who did not make eye contact.

Shadow sat just beyond the gold, transparent curtain and faced himself directly at Sterling. Only the thin veil separated the two, extra-large males. I barely noticed Shadow’s confrontational posture until Sterling was growling. He carried on for a few moments before I looked up from my phone and asked “what’s going on here?” 

As soon as I spoke, Sterling moved quickly and low to the ground. He stopped at the door behind me, which led to his cozy, safe space. He pawed at the door, trying to pry it open. 

I crouched next to him, inadvertently blocking him into a corner. “It’s ok,” I said. “You don’t have to leave. I’m not angry.” I pet him, but did not open the door. 

He breathed quickly, his agitation intensifying. He cowered beneath my touch. “Hey, it’s ok,” I placed my hand on his belly and gave him a rub. His eyes widened, his pupils dilated. “What’s up with you?” 

I heard the floor creak. I turned, surprised to see Shadow right behind me. I reacted with a slight jolt. Sterling clamored to his feet, scratching at the floor with his claws. He bolted to the piano as fast as his fat body could take him. He leapt with fear, not looking where he was going, and found himself face-to-face with one of the potted plants.

I watched as his claw caught the lip of the saucer beneath the pot. “Oh Shit!” I exclaimed as Sterling fell backwards and the pot banged deep bass notes, echoing my expletive, before crashing to the ground, breaking and flinging dirt across the floor.

For a split second, looking at the broken pot and the brand-new mess, I had to make a choice. 

I chose to be OK with what just happened. I chose to accept it, even though I had just finished cleaning the house and still had to pack and get organized; even though it didn’t feel OK, I chose to accept it with an understanding that it was OK.

I looked at the broken pot and the dirt on the floor. I looked at the little pile of dirt on the piano keys, the shards of pottery on top of the mound. I looked at the rug I inherited from my Grandmother, scrunched up where Sterling launched off it. In a way, the scene was aesthetically pleasing. Everything was beautifully chaotic, organically placed; it was an artistic expression of gravity and physics that no human could possibly recreate.

I kneeled beside the plant and stroked its narrow leaves — for at least a year it needed repotting, it had grown large and looked cramped. There also hadn’t been enough soil in the pot, but the plant was healthy and so the task never made it onto my to-do list. “Now’s your time,” I said. 

I picked up the plant and the shards of pottery; I shook out the rug and cleaned off the piano. I moved with acceptance — maybe even contentment — and did not feel one twinge of irritation, resentment or anger.

With the plant repotted and the room clean again, I sat back and considered my reaction. Not too long ago, I may have cursed the sky for giving me wacko cats and grumbled as I fixed everything. Where did this deep sense of equanimity come from?

It could only be my yoga practice. I began yoga teacher training at the beginning of the year and have been learning the principles, philosophy and energetics of yoga. According to yoga, personality is a process, and we can evolve to a higher ideal. Left to itself, the mind repeats in cycles, yet with the power of our will we can retrain the mind and reshape ourselves. In this instance, I was not the woman who would curse the sky and get red in the face; I was the woman who picked up the pieces with a calm, knowing smile.

I recalled my teacher, Kelly Golden’s words at the end of every class, “the real practice of yoga begins when you step off the mat and into the world.”

Yoga teaches that discernment is the pinnacle of our spiritual practice. Everyday we make choices and the true practice of yoga helps us choose what is highest and best. In this instance, my practice allowed me to choose acceptance and peace.