A month in

Dear A–

I’m thinking about you in academia. Thinking about your body. I imagine R is a good companion, helping you eat warm food and find pleasure and shake off some of those many many hours.

The weather here has turned. I am eating soup. This past weekend Zelda and I went into the woods together. The place we went is called the Lewis River in the guidebook, and on the signs that advertise excavation or lumber or bass boats for sale. Being out – stepping out – from the dark protection of big trees to stand with bright, sharp, pale green grasses at the water’s edge, I do not think “Lewis.” This rippling body: mother, vessel, innocent, everything – I do not call her “Lewis” in my mind.

As I’ve taught my daughter to ask when we come to a new place on the map: does this name come from those who were harmed to claim it, or from those who did the harm? Is it a name that claims by memorializing that which could not – by design – survive the claim?

Z and I said, “hello river. thank you river. look how clear and quiet you are.” We drank from her (filtered, yes! we are fragile little beings), made our soup and hot cocoa from her body.

Last week, Clara and I were playing in the garden. She collected leaves and crunched them; I turned the earth to distribute gleanings from the rabbit hutch. She brought me some treasure, to show me – and I had to apologize. “I’m sorry I don’t know the prayers to teach you so you can properly thank mama earth for all she gives us.” She patted my hand. “You have that book of prayers, mama. You can use some of them.”

It took me a moment to figure out she meant the chant book from Great Vow – the Zen Monastery. C and Z have been there a few times; they know the special energy of the place. While Zazen happens on Sundays, one of the warmest women living at the monastery will take the kids tromping around the grounds. Last time we were there they made paintings from berries, leaves, and flowers, smashing them into the paper. The paintings were still in the back of the minivan when it died, actually.

I am planting in my nascent garden again, as water falls from the sky to welcome the newcomers. Here, in the city, as I take them from plastic pots and Clara rubs her hands in their roots to encourage them, I can think, Vine Maple, Nootka Rose, Milkweed. The illusion of their individuality is palatable here. I bow to each. I wonder what it will take for them to trust this place, my clumsy care.

In the woods, though, I feel the pad of life I’m standing on. The giant white chanterelles erupt through what we think of as path overnight, showing “the path” is merely a drape over a body – a luscious body which rolls, gestures, peeks through like a glute through ripped jeans. How do I say: here is this plant, and over here, this one. It isn’t that way at all. Even if I knew better names. Our language fails: it sees separateness, it names delusion.

Moss and lichen embrace all the surfaces. This bit of precious woods where we were is protected by big trees. We leaned at their feet with our backpacks on like woozy children at the end of a party. We saw a beetle with a back like an in-set jewel crawl from the floating frond of a fern to the glistening brown dome of a newly-expressed mushroom. Each little beetle foot made what it touched freshly visible to us. We oohed and awed.

I’m writing mostly to share this.

As we were leaving, the next morning – heading back to “Washington” and then “Vancouver” and then, finally, “Portland” (these flat, solid ideas, like the pavement that comes with them) – we drove, suddenly, toward a bright spot in the woods. Zelda in the passenger seat perked up, in that way of a life-form drawn to light. It was a clear cut. We gasped, then moderated our shock. I mean, of course. On both sides of the road, vast, rippling, glowing green gave way to a field of bloody lumps of red and brown and the many small, upright white mesh tubes they use to cover the stunned baby cedars and firs they push into the ground after they drag the whole forest away.

I’m othering. Should I replace ‘we’ for ‘they’?

The thought that came, as I put the car in park in the middle of the empty road, was Charnel Ground. 

I have heard this for many years from Tibetan teachers of the Vajrayana tradition: go to the Charnel Grounds. In Tibet, where the ground is frozen so much of the year (or was), they bring the dead out to a place and leave them there – in ceremony, I am sure – for the scavengers. Unlike everyone else, the monks go while still alive – literally, figuratively – to come closer to impermanence, to learn to tolerate their own aversion, to be with the whole of what is here.

A friend who is lost to me now once told me about her friend’s doctoral thesis in philosophy, which had at its center – I think – the argument that the only really ethical response to climate change is mourning.

In that charnel ground (not unlike a hospital nursery full of bawling babies in plastic boxes) I thought of this thesis. The potency of grief as a true connection – not only to what is not here, but to the shocking sensation of what is.

I write this to myself, but thinking of you helps me write it. I wonder what you may have grieved, or maybe you are grieving now. I warm to the tenderness that sustains mourning. The willingness to feel. I consider myself a beginner in this sort of willingness; my ancestors in their fear, their grasping, tell me: Everything is Fine, Keep Moving. Maybe that is why grief feels like a doorway to me, a mystic portal: whiteness is a monster made of projecting all loss onto other bodies. What if all loss happens right here, in my pelvis? I’ll need all the love there, too.

Grief as magic. Grief as transformation. Grief as reciprocity.

The leaves are so bright before they fall.


Published by Devon Riley

lately: youth work, parenting, sorcery, books, walks in the woods

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