Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Feet and Legs
or... How One Anti-Social Bastard Found Real Life

As I'm sitting here trying to sort a spiritual experience into shelved little paragraphs for consumption, all I can think about are my feet and legs. My thighs wail when I bend down. I can feel the blisters on my feet compress and spread as I take a step. The patchwork of scrapes on my knees. Minus the seeping burn on my thumb, the torso fared much better, but I can still feel a dull soreness when I rotate my shoulders. This pain will take time to heal.

I truly love that it will. I wryly smile when weary muscles stretch and scream, when sharp pain shoots from my feet, rushing through the nerves and straight to the brain. I beam with pride as I drag my beaten body down sidewalks and streets. All of my pain plucks me from the city and drops me back into the weekend, back to the swirling wind atop Spud Rock.
To running my hands through the tall grass of Mica Meadow. To lying aimlessly on monolithic stone and feeling life all around me, encompass me, permeate my flesh and bone and synthesize me into itself.

It almost seems cheap to just talk about it. The wilderness, Real Life, must be experienced to fully appreciate. But we'll try it anyway.

Last weekend I went on a backpacking trip into the Eastern region of Saguaro National Park. The wilderness there has had a tight grip on my heart since last summer when I went on my very first backpacking trip. Six months prior to my introduction to the woods I had left my first serious, and by any measure godawful, relationship. I had spent my time rediscovering myself and licking my wounds when a coworker suggested that I get out for a long weekend. She recommended Saguaro because it's close to town, perfect for the transportationally–challenged, like myself.

I owe her more than she'll ever know. That trip was transformative. It kickstarted my passion for hiking and a deep love for the wild. I found the last piece of myself in those woods, a piece I had been trying to fashion and shoehorn into the rest of the puzzle. Practically it should have been a disaster. I went during monsoon season with no proper water treatment, a leaky tent, and a 40+ pound pack. But the woods (and the generous Forest Rangers) were kind to me. I had always intended to go back, and after plans for a trip through the Blue Range Primitive Area fell through, an opportunity presented itself.

I had learned much in a year, having gone on a handful of other backpacking trips. I bought a fancy new tent. I had found a cheap and effective means of treating backcountry water. I cut my pack weight to about 30 pounds. But oddly enough the most important piece of gear I packed was probably the most impractical.

For entertainment I brought a biography on Eustace Conway, one of the last American frontiersmen in the country. Eustace lives entirely off his land. He can create a roaring fire from two sticks. He hunts and forages for his food. He sleeps in a small teepee. He travels around the country espousing the benefits of living harmoniously with nature, how through our pursuit of convenience we've created an artificial existence in hollowed brick-and-mortar boxes that rest on the battered corpse of what was once a thriving natural landscape.

It's an inspiring biography but I suppose that I'm biased. You would be, too. City life had been crushing me before I ran away to live in the woods. My work had become unfulfilling and frustrating. A good friendship had been waning. I had been rejected by a rare soul I had felt strongly connected to. Truthfully I rarely feel fully comfortable in most social settings. I tend to shy away from big events and outings that most would consider engaging. So maybe I'm just an antisocial bastard and Eustace is telling me what I want to hear: People suck, civilization sucks, sell all your shit and go live out in the woods forever.

But I doubt it. I lived his words. I would lie in my tent at night, absorbing his knowledge, and experience his reality the following morning. How all of nature melds into a beautiful cycle of life and death, drought and deluge, searing flame and soothing wind. Spud Rock gives the best views of the Rincons and from there I could see the simple truth of Eustace's words. Swaths of new pine growing next to blackened, charred stump. A lone sapling rooted right into a massive boulder. Deep pools of water in streams that would be bone dry in a matter of weeks.

I was alive. I wasn't making a living, I was just living. As I hiked further into the forest I could feel life surrounding me and engulfing me into its cycle. I felt accepted and loved and connected to everything. This was Real Life that you could feel in the wind, hear when the birds took flight, smell in the dense pines, taste in the flowing water. Eustace says that humans live in boxes, that our geometry runs opposite to the natural lifecycle. We work in boxes, we sleep in boxes, we're entertained by the television box, we work on computer boxes, we eat food in boxes. All lifeless, manufactured boxes that do not foster nor encourage Real Life. The Beats tried to find meaning and a sense of self through manual labor. They left academia and the lofty institutions inherited from their families to work on oil rigs and railroads. I had already found myself last summer. I labored over 12 miles and 6,000 feet in elevation to complete myself. This time I was looking for a life to live, and I found it. I found my home.

What can fill you with more confidence than finding where you belong? How can any problems from the boxes seem significant when you've lived a Real Life, even for just a few days? Work will always be frustrating. Friends will always disappoint you. Women will always come and go. None of it matters when you're in nature. Every task is manual labor. Hike to this point. Make camp. Find water. Eat food. Sleep. Hike some more. Work is everywhere and there is a sense of accomplishment in everything. You're a small piece of something magnificent. You’re living with your environment rather than simply in it.

The wilderness is my home. It's everyone's home. We're all from there. Nature still welcomes us with open arms, melding us into the cycle like we never left it at all. Don't just go outside. Go out into the wild. Carry 30 pounds on your back and run up a mountain. Scrape your knees on bedrock when you're dragging water from the river. Get blisters on your feet from hiking too much. Burn your thumbs on a campfire. Make your muscles sore. Climb to the highest point on the mountain and see how small and inconsequential your city is. Go outside, go home, live a Real Life, then go back to your housebox and relish in your pain. Just fucking live.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Looking for Shelter - Backstory
by Lisa Levine

He entered my life Godlike on another summer night in Tucson. His smile lit me up like an electric eel. An electric eel God. Unloosed, rootless, he worked as a strip-club cook. I admired his freedom from the fishbowl windows of the resort where I served spinet tomatoes and poured nineteen-dollar water. I wanted to start over, working myself lead tired, sober in an intoxicated world.

He wanted, I think, to win money—lottery money, casino money, quick, magical money—but most of the time he ended up with a string of arrests in towns he would try to never visit again. We met in the neighborhood, where His mother lived a few blocks away from me passed out on a dirty mattress the one time I saw her. He said she was drunk. He didn’t say anything about the four hardback library books stacked on her redolent kitchen counter, but he did act as if she had raised him to be a good man, somehow between the shelter and the street. I knew he was a good man because he looked me in the eyes the first time he made love to me. Tom Waits sang in the back of my mind. Women falling out of windows in expensive clothes.

I yearned to become pregnant, wanting to bind him to my body, electrocute myself alive. Instead and soon he left for Montana or San Francisco or Eugene or one of the million and ten cool-sounding places wanderers go after they win your heart, the one they never wanted to win.

I ran away. I found Him. We made love in rented rooms, hourly rooms, my fingernails skidding along the windowsills of sobriety. I had a job, briefly, in a wine shop. I never slept outside. I parsed out $20 for hostel rooms. I slept on a couch or two. How long would I have had to stay in that place to claim homelessness as my story? Homeless. Grimly bohemian. I was both. I was neither, but there were nights that drew lines.

Memory-transcript of a phone call to an old friend:

I’m sitting down on the street.
Where are you?
Below Market somewhere.
Is there somewhere you can go? Just get the room. Spend the money.

Thanks to her voice I never found out whether, on my own, I would have stood up.

I left town, left town, left town.

I got over him. Ugly over. By sleeping with too many men, men from whom I wanted nothing. I pretended to want their love but I sought solace instead in money, stability, working my way up front-line management jobs no one else wanted. I leased apartments to the downtrodden, and when I had to, I evicted strangers like Him to retain my position, saving every paycheck until one day the shadows of that story, the one I could never claim as mine, receded. I was no longer one of them anymore.

Still and for years I met him in hotel rooms once every few months—until an unforgivable rumor rear-hooked me with primitive teeth and I deleted the real Him from my life. At the same time he was becoming a story. I gave it a title, “The Narrow Bed,” and in my mind our love looked like Van Gough’s bed, dizzy and skinny and faded and beautiful. It looked like the hostel where he lived when he didn’t live on the street, a dreary cinderblock Paradise.


Years later, Bird’s Thumb published “Shelter,” the final version of the story that would become my grip on paradise, the story of a life I adopted for a while and then handed back to people like Him. The story was never mine to begin with. The story is mine. Lumping the word story with the word mine is useless. It is life. Life is a story and stories are Gods. They light up, electric, blazing trails in the distant dark before crashing to a fallen place the eye that spied them will never, ever find again.

Don’t go looking for stories, He would say. Look for Gods.

Lisa Levine likes to read topographic maps. She writes landscape adventure stories and teaches full-time at Pima Community College. Editors Sahar Mustafah and Anita Dellaria nominated her fiction for a 2015 Pushcart Prize, and Bird's Thumb, Cutbank, Kore Press, Edible Baja Arizona, Sonora Review, Zocalo, The Sierra Vista Herald, France Today and The Not For Tourists Guides have published her prose.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Only Way Out Is Deeper In

"The only way out," he said grandly, "when you've outed yourself that badly, is deeper in."

We were at the table by this time, soaking up the booze with Sonoran poutine: Tater Tots smothered in cheddar cheese, gooped with tomatoes, bell pepper, onion, salsa and Cholula hot sauce.

I was ready for the food, for I'd arrived ravenous. Doff the coat, eyeball the munchies, restrain yourself only long enough to put the gløgg on to warm.

I popped an olive in my mouth, moaned, closed my eyes and crunched.

"Stuffed, mmmm, I love olives." I swallowed and reached for another. "Blanched almonds?"

"That would be whole cloves," said the "ex-pat" writer from Iceland. We were all writers here. "Garlic cloves."

Larissa's a complete gem, the kind of woman I'm glad to know if only annually. I want her to like me. I want to be like her. Her wit and wowzer power. (Is that a thing?) A Fulbright scholar who, when her career in coupons dried up, took to teaching English to toddlers. She mangles their words and they mangle hers. They laugh. She laughs. Perhaps laughter is the language we all understand.

"Don't worry," said her partner, filling up the dish with more little garlic bombs, "we've all had lots!"

Thus started a night that grew deeply and inappropriately more wonderful, as we killed the Scandinavian mulled wine and started in on the frozen margaritas rimmed with Icelandic sea salt, and washed it all down with beer.

We locked ourselves out of the oven ("That'd be the cleaning cycle"), and ogled the latest Tucson firefighter calendar, well oiled men thrusting their hips and wielding their hoses.

We discussed the big faux pas of life -- like when you meet a casual friend at a pub in England during your romantic vacation layover and you one-up the conversation with "I gave my fiancée chlamydia!"

"He needed to go deeper," said Mark. He'd be orating next on the intersection of film and literature. The kind of listener-dependent talk that elicits eye-rolls or drool.

"It's the rule of three: I gave my girlfriend chlamydia! And I gave my cat herpes, poor fellow, but I saved the clap for dear old grandma!"

We were all pretty stoked. It was funny.

"The only way out is deeper in," I texted myself so I'd remember.

And then, thinking about it later, about how we deal with embarrassments, with discomfort, with current challenges and past traumas, with discouragements and setbacks and train-wreck failures . . . Do you hear the whispertruth inside the laughter? . . . Go deeper in. Lean in. Feel it, don't run from it. Let it wax terrible. Let it wax absurd. See it from all its sides. From inside. Take a mouthful of it, sharp and bitter. Swallow.

Then you'll know. You are strong. It can't crush you. The way out it is in and through.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On the House - Backstory
by Leigh Madrid

I look out windows. If I stare or am still too long, nostalgia gnaws at my wrists, at my collarbone. I wish for snow, pray to forget.

I said to you once, Dormancy is the slumber nearest death. It was winter. We were young then, high, in love of a sort. I said, I wonder, in the spring, do trees recall the cold?

Dormant slumber. I’ve known it twice.

The first time from the sickness that came for me not long after my daughter’s birth. I felt off, but that was to be expected. Called a miracle, childbirth diminishes the body. I didn’t go to the doctor. Wasn’t it all in my head?

I was infected. Then hospitalized, emergency surgery. Mom, Dad—take the baby. You… you were too busy. You apologized via text.

Before, I never cried.

Later, daughter’s first word. Mama. That same day you wrapped your hands around my neck to squeeze and squeeze.

Hovering above, I felt serene. Only after would I be troubled by the vision of bulging eyes, slackening arms, baby slipping, slipping to the floor.

World a blur, I ran with baby pressed tight between breasts. She laughed as I pulled the closet door shut behind us.

Mama. Mama. Mama.

You are gone now.

After much restructuring, my life is stable. Calm and quiet, twin balms of healing.

Late at night, old wounds tend to ache, and new scars to itch.

The steadfast routine that keeps a toddler pleasant leaves me yearning. For what? For who I was before you? For something forgotten, or that never was?

Am I sleeping still? Life is too quiet.

I look out windows.

I see dive bars. Bad lighting. Vodka tonics—extra lime. Stranger’s winks. Tequila shots. I can taste the acrid throatburn of cigarettes as I drag past the filter. Overflowing ashtrays and knotted cherry stems.

These days I drink at the kitchen table. A glass of wine. Light beer. Coffee with just a splash of something. I haven’t smoked in a decade. I miss having something to do with my hands.

I look out windows. The forever sunshine doesn’t suit me.

It never snows here. Every few years something resembling snow will drift down. Lasting only long enough to snap a shot of saguaros dusted white. It isn’t the kind that sticks, lending whimsy to winter before turning to slush. It doesn't melt. It evaporates. Not real snow at all.

I tell myself stories about different kinds of deserts, of people carrying a bit of hope tucked inside otherwise empty pockets. I write.

Leigh Madrid lives North of Tucson. She shares a home with her toddler, an antisocial cat, and the occasional scorpion. Inspiration from snowy daydreams and a fondness for dive bars fuel much of her writing.

From the author: I pitched “On the House” to my writing group as “an Irish bar story set in South Dakota.” Later an editor with an Irish surname asked to publish it. I don’t believe in signs…or maybe I do. Either way, I’m very excited for my story to appear in Literary Orphans.