Come into the bone bell: come inside, come inside

My hands on these keys, your eyes on these words, the elegant connections between eyecells and braincells; between fingercells and braincells and back to fingercells — none of this is mysterious, all of it is beyond miraculous. Welcome to the impossible. Welcome to your self.

Please consider this memory:  I was thirty, raising three kids alone and wrestling myself through a psychology degree split between get-to-know-and-love-yourself counseling and physiological psychology. One of my teachers gathered us into a circle, in which we told our deepest stories, confronted each other, acted out our dreams, cried, froze in silence, held each other and often wanted only to escape. We all sat tight. We were learning Rogerian therapy and Gestalt technique in our bodies — and by the seat of our pants. Our teacher warmly insisted we call him by his first name. Some of us slept together. That was never mentioned in our cozy circle.

Three hours later, I would walk across campus to a brightly lit classroom in which desks were aligned in rows with military precision. An austere fine-boned man would walk in at 4, not one minute sooner nor later. His lectures were contained, much like listening to a diagram. He drew nerve pathways on the board, his handwriting as precise as his speech. We had never seen him smile. And we were always to call him Doctor.

One gray December day, I left the therapy class circle in my own fog. I had finally cried over my mother’s repeated suicide attempts. One of the other students had gently taken my hand and said, “Now your body and spirit can heal.” I walked slowly on the icy sidewalks as though I were made of glass. I wondered where my spirit resided and I had no idea how my body felt. For years, I had considered myself a huge and difficult mind on a great pair of legs.

By the time I reached the neuroanatomy classroom, I could feel the cold air in my lungs. My thoughts had cleared. The professor walked in at 4. He did not turn to the blackboard as he always did. He stood silently in front of us for what seemed forever. We waited.

“Tell me,” he said, “who you are.” It was not a question. It was a command. The room was silent. Then, a wild-haired young man raised his hand. The professor nodded. “I’m a psychology student, a guitarist and a person on his way to his real life,” the student said. The professor nodded again. An older woman raised her hand, “I’m a mother, a grandmother and a nurse.” Five or six students spoke. I didn’t. I seemed to have no answer.

“Thank you,” the professor said. “Your answers are at one level, correct. And, they are thoroughly inadequate. You see, if someone were to introduce a powerful anticholinergic inhalant into the air ducts, an inhalant that had no scent, you would within seconds not only have no idea of who you are, you would have no idea of you or are or who.” He allowed himself a small, almost sad smile. Then he turned to the blackboard and wrote: acetylcholinesterase and brain function.

I watched his hand move. His hand moving, my eyes watching, my brain decoding what my eyes see, these very thoughts, only neurotransmitters releasing and arriving, moving through cell membranes, releasing again. That is who he is; that is who I am. I wondered that I didn’t feel diminished, though, of course, I  had ceased to have the same meaning it once had.

The next Spring, I stood at a tall table in the Neurophysiology teaching laboratory. The instructor placed a jar in my hands. “Don’t do anything,” she said, “until I give all of you the instructions.” She handed jars to everyone and then taught us how to carefully remove the human brain inside.

I took the cold mass into my hands. The voice of the instructor seemed to fade away. I felt the weight of an unknown person’s words and touches, of memory and loss, of longing and pain, of pleasure and knowledge. Your answers at one level are correct and they are inadequate. The voice of the lab instructor came back. “You will never know who belonged to these brains,” she said. “And, as you will learn in the months to come, our brains do not belong to us. We belong to our brains. And, in that, to our bodies.”

There’s Nothing In Here

“Beyond the white clouds a blue mountain. A traveler goes beyond that mountain.”

 — Zen poem

You know how it is. You stand at the edge of a black highway. It’s so hot your boots stick to the asphalt. The sun bears down on you — on your skull, on your breath. There is nowhere you’d rather be.

There are mountains beyond mountains beyond mirages. Cobalt beyond indigo beyond dusty blue. You know what’s out there — the way washes curve back into the rock, how a waterfall no wider than your palm might be spilling over basalt. There might be reeds and a cottonwood luminous against the dark rock.

A couple in a cliché vehicle drives up and park. They slowly emerge from the car. You try to hold to the cobalt, the waterfall, the verdant flames of the cotton leaves. The man announces to the woman, “There’s nothing out there.” She shudders. In as long as it has taken you to stop breathing, the people are there, not there, and gone.

You look out at the mountain. The sky above is cloudless. You know toward what you will go.

The building was built a few years ago. It is austere. It’s easy to imagine guards and prisoners, easy to believe that like university buildings constructed in the Seventies, it has been designed to discourage students gathering in protest; and should they gather, to allow them to be contained easily. I walk into a huge gray lobby. There are no other people. There is an elevator. I take it up to the second floor.

I exit into more gray, find my way to the room in which I will teach a writing circle. I wait at a long table. Everything is tidy. Everything is gray: table, chairs, walls, ceiling and floor. The door opens into another gray hallway lined with wall-to-wall windows. Outside, the sun drifts down toward a ragged skyline. I lean against the doorframe and watch rose-blue evening melt in.

The students walk down the hall, their laughter muted by the sharp angles of the building. We shove the tables to the back of the room, move the chairs into a circle. I suddenly notice the equipment on a big desk. Brooke laughs. “Watch,” she says.

She touches a button. Two screens slide down over the whiteboard. She touches another button. “What do you want to see?” she asks. “Anything. We can project anything from the internet to the screens.”

“Spirit Mountain. Nevada. Sunset,” I say.

Brooke clicks again. I step aside and turn to the screens. There are two Spirit Mountains side by side. Cobalt rock. Red-gold burning on their tops. Pale desert and dark Joshua trees at their base.

“The last time I looked at that mountain,” I say, “a tourist said, ‘There’s nothing out there.’ Let’s write from these pictures and the prompt: There’s nothing in here.”

We write for thirty minutes. We read. A nineteen-year-old man takes his turn. “There’s nothing in here. I believe these rooms are designed this way to drain the creativity from us students. That way we won’t ever think about what college has become. That way we won’t fight back.”

We finish reading. Brooke steps toward the computer. “No,” the young man says, “leave those on the screen. Let’s pretend we can walk into the pictures. Let’s write from there. We can start with ‘There’s nothing out there.’ Then we’ll go beyond.”

 

 

 

Jail Time In Cell 4 In The Coconino County Jail

Jail Time in the Coconino County JailThe jail cell door clangs shut. I am in a tiny concrete room with a concrete bench and a concrete wall that shields the stainless steel toilet from a viewer’s eyes. The only viewers that will peer in through the thick window for the next long hours will be the detention officers of the Coconino County Jail. I am here on purpose. I am here alone.

The first thing I do is scan the room for something, anything I can write with. The officers have taken my jewelry, wallet, pens and notebook. They have left me my hearing aids and partial dentures. I’m grateful for that. At 71, my hearing is fading. I need to hear every sound and word that echo outside. And I might be able to use my dentures to scratch a message into the wall. Protect the Sacred Mountains. Stop Spiritual Genocide.

But the walls are flecked with brown spots and I am squeamish. I take notes in my mind. The choked howls coming from the cell next door. The thud of a body slamming against a thick door. The carving in my cell door, an Indian in a feathered head-dress and the letters NDN. My friend in a cell across the hall, tracing the words Protect the Peaks on his window; and the fact that he and I are the only white people I see in the tiny windows or being taken into a cell. Those not-so-subtle demographics are the same as the last time I was arrested twenty-five years ago to protest a breccia pipe uranium mine being drilled into sacred Havasupai land thirteen miles south of the Grand Canyon.

I am in this barren room because I’ve committed civil disobedience to protest a local ski resort’s plan to make snow with inadequately treated wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks, a high-desert mountain sacred to thirteen tribes. Because I have friends from five of those tribes, I refused to step away from the huge excavator that was gouging a pipeline trench in the living rock. I stood fast also because I am forty years older than the next oldest of my companions. Look, I wanted my action to say, you do not have to be young to be filled with passion. You do not have to be young to act. 

The howls next door have faded. Hours stretch ahead. With no pen, no paper. There is nothing but the dirty walls and locked door — and the knowledge that outside this county jail, my friends are collecting bail. They know I am in here. I’ve never in my life felt less alone. In that, it is more than my white skin that makes me different from the others locked behind these heavy doors.

I trace words with a fingernail on my forearm. I am here. I will remember every detail. And I will write.

Sojourner is the author of “Bonelight: Ruin and Grace and the New Southwest,” “Delicate: Stories,” “Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire,” “Going Through Ghosts” and, most recently, “She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction.” She lives in Flagstaff. Her blog, “Hoodoo,” can be found at mountaingazette.com

Writing the Forbidden

I am a spy from the ephemeral and ravaged border.
I stepped out of a mirage on the horizon between 29 Palms and Cadiz. The dust on my hair and shoulders caught first light. This corolla was not visible to me. Because I was alone, it was visible to no one.
You moved toward me from the base of a mountain, a mountain that extends a thousand feet or more down into the radiant playa. You were a shadow, the absence of your light not visible to you.
We met, a fusion of the invisible. The shock wave rippled out. Out and further out. There was damage and dislocation. Beyond our ken.
When the air stilled, there was nothing left but fused sand, brilliant as the shards of beer bottles the local kids smash in furious celebration.

No one is free of the forbidden. We are forbidden to speak of it. No one will ever grow old in America. No one will ever carve an arc that leaves the mind in a wheelchair. No one will stop pretending the Western Lands are a frontier for our experiments, for our ceaseless insistence on Fun. No one will double over in the pain and horror of seeing clearly.

The Western Lands welcome you. Look. Out Here you can see for miles. You can begin again. And again. We modern humans are eternal. We will not die. Nothing has been lost.

We do not speak of it. In the huge silence, death moves toward us. We are too busy to notice. We are too busy to know that in our busy-ness, we race to meet the end of everything. We carry what we do not notice with us — toward extinction.

The bulldozer crawls across the high desert sand. The horned toad is slower. Metal and flesh. Months later, we unlock the door of our new “Dream Home” and walk across the bones and carapaces of those we have refused to know.

Welcome to the forbidden.

Rabbits and Red Butte

Surviving the high desert nights of eastern Oregon for the Northern Paiute (Wada-Tika) people required that each member of the tribe own a rabbit blanket to keep them warm. Each blanket required a hundred or more rabbit pelts…

…Jack rabbit were plentiful in the old days…today it is difficult to make these blankets, due to the scarcity of jack rabbits in Harney County.  In the last 50 years the rabbit population has dwindled so much that it is difficult to get even 10 to 20 hides in the winter, when the fur is thick (and thus preferred).  Rabbit bounties in the 1950’s and other means of eradication have left few rabbits…”

— Minerva T. Soucie  (Burns Paiute),

“The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon”

“Dr. Bryce,” Newton said, “…To tell you the truth, it dismays us greatly to see what you are about to do with such a beautiful,
fertile world.  We destroyed ours a long time ago, but we had so much less to begin with that you have here.”  His voice now seemed agitated, his manner more intense.  “Do you realize that you will not only wreck your civilization, such as it is, and kill most of your people; but that you will also poison the fish in your rivers, the squirrels in your trees, the flocks of birds, the soil, the water..”

— Walter Tevis, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” c. 1963

The little birds in the front yard are pale gray. When they arc through the evening, sunset turns their belly feathers to petals of flame. I’ve just read Thomas Newton’s prediction to Dr. Bryce. It had seemed important to look up from the book and see what was around me — the Engelmann Spruce, the apple tree, sunflowers on their way to autumn light. But, it is the underbelly feathers of the little birds that bring Thomas Newton’s words alive.

I remember the salmon feast at Warm Springs a few days earlier. The Warm Springs people invited friends and strangers to help them celebrate the opening of their museum exhibit, The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon. I arrived just in time for the Round Dance.

“Everybody dance,” the leader cried out. The drums began. Slow. Steady. The Warm Springs people and their guests linked hands. We stepped side-ways, going slowly and steadily in the direction of the sun. Fancy Dancers spun in smaller circles in our big circle. The drums began to slow. The Warm Springs woman who had led off the dance moved back the other direction, stopping to greet each of us with a handshake and a smile.

It had been twenty-three years since I had danced the Round Dance. The last time had been at a Havasupai gathering near Red Butte in Arizona. We had come together to pray for a little meadow a few miles from where we danced. Energy Fuels Nuclear, a Denver mining company, was planning to drill a breccia pipe uranium mine into the meadow. The Havasupai knew that the meadow was the belly of The Mother — the beautiful and fertile Mother.

The Havasupai and the rest of us did much more than dance. We demonstrated at the Grand Canyon, got arrested, filed legal appeals to the Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement. In the long run, there were three more prayer gatherings. In the long run, the price of uranium dropped and the minesite was abandoned. The fence still stands. Energy Fuels Nuclear no longer exists. And, because of the 1872 Mining Law, the belly of the Mother is not safe. The mining companies and their petitions to extract uranium are back.

The Warm Springs Round Dance ended. We went into the regalia exhibit. I came to the Wada-Tika rabbit fur robe. A white card read: Please don’t touch.

I’ll never hold the robe. I may never go back to Red Butte. And still, I contain the stories of birds with radiant belly feathers; of the roaring sage fire that lay at the circle of the Red Butte dancers; of the smiling Warm Springs woman who reached out to take my hand. I will hold the stories lightly and pass them on. That will not be enough. The times Walter Tevis envisioned are here.

Long-time MG contributor Mary Sojourner is the author of, among many other books, “She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction” and “Going Through Ghosts.” She recently moved back to Flagstaff, after stints in the Mojave and the Pacific Northwest.