Monday, August 6, 2018

Walking with it

Grief is a wholly unattractive subject. No one wants to read about it, or even think much about it, until they are in its throes. It’s like getting a flat tire on a highway at night. You rummage through your glovebox in the darkness, desperate for your driver’s manual, or a roadside assistance brochure. You need information. You need a plan. You need your car back on the road. Until then, why read a manual? 

The vet that came by the house to euthanize our old dog Roscoe was gentle and quiet. Her manner was priest-like. Few words were spoken. Roscoe lay asleep in the dappled light beneath his favorite tree. After he passed, my wife and I sobbed ourselves dry into the thick fur around his neck, then helped ease his thirteen year old body onto a stretcher. The vet covered him with a clean white sheet, and tucked a rolled up towel under his head for a pillow. We carried Roscoe together, like pall bearers, and put him in the back of her SUV, then wept again at the sight of that car driving away. Thirteen years of companionship and adventure, affection and routine - a lifetime - had come to an end, like a dream we were not ready to wake from.

The vet left us a little booklet called When Your Pet Dies, A Guide to Mourning, Remembering, and Healing. The cover has a photo collage of all kinds of pets. I figured the information in it would be generic, yet I was anxious to read it, in case it contained something useful that I didn’t already think I knew, or that maybe I had missed during the months of preparation I'd had after learning about the paralysis that would eventually take our dog's life. At the heart of the book was a simple, provocative claim; that in order to lessen the power of pain and sadness, we should move toward it, engage it, incorporate it into our life’s story, rather than fleeing or suppressing it. We should “sit with” grief, because it has things to teach us, and in any case, it will not be ignored. This felt true to me and the thought quickly took root. I would commit to this path. But with one exception. I knew I needed to walk with grief, rather than sit with it.

As it happens, everything on the trail to Herman lake reminds me of my dog. The little streams a dog could drink from. Rocks and roots that need careful navigating. Footbridges across bogs that my dog would avoid in favor of trudging through the muck below. Intermittent snow fields he would dive into and roll around in. I had chosen a trail familiar to Roscoe. This hike was going to be a sort of memorial.

At the top of this steep gulch sits an alpine lake that we’d visited several times, one of Colorado's many icy tarns that delight human eyes with their stark beauty and provide canine companions a welcome plunge. But today I would travel up beyond the lake, to a peak on the Continental Divide that I’d long had my eye on, Pettingell Peak, a rocky indistinct lump from the south, or a menacing beauty from the north. It’s not technically challenging from the approach I am taking, but at 13,553’ the views from its summit are unmatched. And for someone enchanted by rugged isolation, the utter lack of maintained trails on Pettingell makes the climb extra appealing.

I understand solo alpine trekking is a tough sell to the world at large, but for me, the journey up a lonesome mountain serves a dual purpose. It provides a backdrop for a journey inward. There is no one to talk to except yourself. You can go as deep inside as you dare. And outwardly, in the realm of flesh and bone and rock, there are enough challenges to keep you on your toes, so to speak. The boundaries between these parallel journeys becomes fluid, and much is revealed in the liminal space between them. I can’t speak for others, but this is why I do it.

The slog up to Pettingell's peak starts at the lake and follows a series of streams and rivulets coming down from ice cornices up on the Continental Divide. Alternating talus slopes and grassy benches ascend to a saddle at about 13’300.’ Above, the ridge to the summit offers an unexpected challenge. I must decide whether to traverse a boulder field below it, which involves a rugged but direct route to the summit, or ascend to the ridge in favor of firmer footing, but which clearly will require time consuming down-climbing in a couple of spots. As I’m considering my options, I notice a low roar coming from behind the ridge. It sounds like a jet engine, but it isn’t going anywhere. I realize with dismay this is the wind raking itself against the north face of the peak I’m on. I opt to stay low on the boulders and out of its reach. The rocks are loose and tippy. I test each step before putting my full weight down. The going is slow.

North face of Pettingell Peak

On the scale of losses that humans can endure, some are clearly worse than others. It’s tempting to rank them according to the tragedy of their circumstances. Even the accidental death of a pet would seem to be worse than the one who is euthanized in old age. Or so you might think. But grief isn’t proportional to the degree of tragedy that frames it. Instead it is defined by the depth of affection and attachment to the one who is lost. The greater the love, the greater the sorrow. Grief makes no distinctions according to species, or any other empirical gradations of value. When a beloved pet dies, it isn’t like losing family member, it is losing a family member.

At the summit there is a little rock shelter just big enough for one or two people to hunker down out of the wind. These structures seem to be on every peak in Colorado, no matter how homely or insignificant the mountain. I settle in to rest for a few moments. The air is thin and the sun feels close, despite the 40 degree temperature.

I’m startled by a vigorous flapping sound. I look up to see another solo climber has joined me. The sound is coming from the ear flaps on his hat. I hadn’t seen him coming, and am momentarily annoyed that I no longer have the mountain to myself. Yet I know chances are good that if you meet another person on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to have a lot in common. We try to chat but he can’t hear for the flapping. I gesture for him to join me in the rock shelter out of the wind. And so it is that within moments the climber named Mike and I are swapping tales of high country adventures. What endears me to him is his admission that he hikes alone because no one can stand how slow he is, and that he is slow because he’s distracted by beauty. “I just get lost in it. And I take a lot of pictures.” I ask if he’s a photographer. “No, I just take pictures,” he says. I like that Mike knows the difference. After a few minutes I leave him to his reverie. Everyone who bothers to wander alone deserves some time to themselves on top of a mountain.

Roscoe on the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass

From time to time, randomly, I get a little pang of sorrow for my dog. It comes out of nowhere, or is triggered by something beneath the threshold of my awareness. But there it is. And when it happens, I stop what I’m doing and put my hand on my heart. It has no specific meaning, or it didn’t at first. It just feels appropriate, like I need a gesture. I think of all the times that Roscoe would jump on me, leaving dirty paw prints on my chest. Dogs have few ways of expressing their exuberance. Most of these involve their tongue, or jumping, yet these are the behaviors humans work hard to suppress. I was always a little lenient with the jumping. We each have our blind spots. I decide I’m putting a paw print on my heart with my hand. That’s what the gesture will mean. It may or may not make sense, but it’s a thing to do. And when you’re grieving, you need things to do.

We had plenty of warning about Roscoe’s demise. The slow march of paralysis in his hind quarters, brought on by a spinal disorder, had a known progression of symptoms, plateaus and setbacks. We would adjust to them little by little. We picked up Roscoe when he fell. We moved our bedroom into my art studio on the main level of the house so he wouldn’t have to climb stairs. I altered my social activities outside the home so I could look after him more vigilantly. We even put boots on his hind feet so he wouldn’t injure them when they began to drag. When neighbors saw us out walking together they would invariably comment on his cute boots. They were cute. And so the incremental adjustments went, until the day Roscoe could no longer stand up from a sitting or lying position.

The trip down the mountain is uneventful, as it should be. Descending on these old knees presents the usual challenges, and as always, gravity works harder to help me than I want. At the last pitch above the lake I relax beside a stream to have a sandwich. Columbine cling to the rocks all around me and moss grows vigorously beside the stream. The wind whips little clouds of spray up from the water and I enjoy the unlikely humidity of this micro climate. A few feet away in any direction it is unforgivingly arid. Below me I see a dozen brightly attired day hikers spread out on the boulders around the lake. Most don’t have backpacks. These are the folks you see hiking in gym shoes with just a plastic water bottle in one hand. Overconfident midwesterners, I always think. They do not go beyond the lake.

Herman Lake from Pettingell Peak

Back at the water’s edge where the trail picks up, I run into a steady stream of hikers still coming up the trail despite the lateness of the day. The sky is intermittently cloudy, with no real intent of storming, and yet it’s reassuring to descend back below treeline. The forest offers a comfort which is palpable, maybe even ancestral, I imagine. Around a switchback in dense trees a little red retriever-ish dog bounds up the trail ahead of her human. She sniffs my hand but moves on quickly, determined to get somewhere. What kind of dog is this? I ask the human. “A Toller Duck Dog,” she says. “From Nova Scotia. Everyone thinks she’s an Irish Setter, but they aren’t related at all.” The lady, older than me and kind of matronly, is thrilled by the uniqueness of her dog. All dog people are, even when over-breeding makes that uniqueness questionable.

“Do you have a dog?” She asks. “Well up until two days ago I did.” I manage to get this out in a matter-of-fact way, but suddenly feel I’m on shakier ground than I was up on the boulder field. “Oh my goodness, you’re heartbroken,” The lady says.  Not, “You must be heartbroken,” like I might have expected, but, “You are heartbroken.” As if it is an observable fact. The lady then asks if she can give me a hug. I should have seen this whole thing coming. Should have known not to start the dog conversation, but it’s too late. I nod yes, and immediately come unglued in the arms of this total stranger, in the middle of a trail, on the side of a mountain. My tears falls onto her blue fleece jacket and I watch them sink into the fabric and disappear. I hope she doesn't notice. Hikers pass by, excusing themselves politely as they step around us. Overwhelmed with self-consciousness, I struggle to pull myself together, but the lady cautions me to not worry about what others think. “This is your time to grieve,” she says, as if I might need to be told. I begin to suspect she may be a therapist or counselor. She has all the right language, but I don’t ask. Her Toller Duck Dog has curled up beneath a tree nearby to wait out this inexplicable delay. Little spots of sunlight jump all around her where she lays.

A voice in my head urges me to “man up” and move on. This voice has been with me my whole life, but it is not mine. It was put in my head to do the bidding of others. Even as a kid, the idea of manliness I grew up with seemed ridiculous to me, but I dared not laugh openly about it. I didn’t trust the whole practice. It was a contrivance. A made up thing that involved posturing and pretense. I pictured cowboys and firemen and soldiers. Something that might require tools or a costume. I wasn’t headed toward being any of those things. I cried plenty as a child, which led to the usual bullying and “poundings,” at school, and then to still more crying. But it never made me question my “manhood.” That was other people’s preoccupation.

I thank the lady for her compassion and her time, and she seems equally grateful to have helped. I smooth out my shirt, adjust the straps on my pack, and resume my trek. Just ahead of me I see a young couple who have stepped off the trail, waiting for whatever crisis intervention they had stumbled upon to play out. I nod hello to them, as if everything is okay. No big deal. They eye me curiously. Wordlessly. I imagine they are hoping that whatever had me so shook up won’t happen to them.

The book about grieving has a lot to say about the solace of memory. I’ve had my share of friends and relatives die over the years, and at each funeral the eulogy winds around to the idea that the dead can live on in our memories. I used to feel like this was a hollow condolence. A poetic notion that felt good during a funeral, and was meant to ward off despair in a ceremonial sort of way, but was a crummy consolation for a missing loved one. I now feel that the present may simply be the engine of memory. The present is fleeting and chaotic, and needs recollection to give it context. Each moment that passes is comprehensible only as a direct function of remembrance. And so this is now where Roscoe will live - not in some imaginary spot in the vicinity of my heart, but in the active, living tissue of my memory, which helps me make sense of things.

I never did get that woman’s name. It wouldn’t have mattered, but I’d like to thank her again. I recognize what happened as a moment of grace. A blessing. It was unexpected, and the circumstance was altogether strange, not to mention awkward, but it was a blessing nonetheless.

Ahead of me the trail bends into a grove of aspen that seems to glow from within. I hear the rush of cars on the highway and realize I’m nearing the trailhead. The other world I belong to beckons me back. At the car I unfold the map I’d had with me but never consulted. It is marked up with routes for other off-trail hikes that I’ve drawn on it, not for navigational purposes, but as a reminder of where I’ve been. Pettingell peak can now be inked in. Poring over the map, I realize there are almost no trails in this whole part of the state I haven’t walked with my dogs. Memories live in all these places, like ghosts that only I can see. I vow to nurture each one as best I can. This is the work that grieving requires. A commitment to memories, and a heart big enough that the important sorrows will always be at home. I’m only starting to walk with this new grief, and just like with walking, there is effort. But after thirteen years of exploring the world together, I imagine that Roscoe pretty much knows his way around these parts, so maybe I can let him lead for a while. I’m not even sure what that means. It’s simply a thought I like, because I feel like maybe he’s nearby, but off-leash, and up ahead just a little ways.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Making the right pictures

I leaned my new paintings against the fresh white walls and began arranging them for maximum effect. The front doors of the gallery opened wide to the street. It was a flawless blue sky morning. Perfect for hanging an art show. Perfect for national elections.

The mood among the staff and other artists at the gallery was upbeat. Each of us had already voted. We offered one another assurance of our good chances - as progressives - of having the elections go our way.

Over the summer I had created a series of paintings that were all loose explorations on coming of-age themes, depicting young people at odds with their surroundings. These children were partially cloaked or hidden by a variety of coping strategies ranging from too-much makeup, to masks and helmets. Each painting had its subject situated in non-literal spaces that were crowded with conflicting messages, diagrams devoid of context, and disintegrating letter-forms intended as a sort of Rorschach prompt to be interpreted any number of ways. My primary interest was in depicting the bravery, wariness, defiance and resoluteness that young people often possess in situations of uncertainty. To my thinking, a nuanced and unsentimental coming of-age story was a fresh area of creative endeavor. But as I looked around the gallery at the completed work I was all at once struck with the idea that I had painted the wrong paintings. For all their bravery, my characters were stuck in an existentially dystrophic middle ground, and seemed to not relate directly to the world as it now promised to unfold.

In the next room an artist friend was laying out her new work. I quickly noticed how joyful her paintings seemed to be, and felt a little pain, because joy is not something I’ve spent a lot of time pursuing in my work. It seemed like a subject I hadn’t found my way into honestly. Not directly. Not yet. I told myself joy didn’t need to be depicted, or otherwise captured in the work, but that it could be the result of someone’s experience of the work. I’m not sure what I meant by that, but it gave me license to explore darker themes in hopes that practice would result in some kind of catharsis or insight.

It’s often true that you need to spend time away from a creative project - putting it completely out of mind - in order to really apprehend it’s true form. Other times that clarity catches you off guard while you are knee deep in the work, with no apparent perspective. By simply setting up my paintings in a new space I had instantly re-framed my view of the work, in a much more critical way. Had I listened to too much NPR while working? Was it the dystopian Decline of the West podcasts? Too much time with fear-fueled Facebook rants? Were these portraits relevant? If I don’t engage difficult subjects during difficult times, when will I? The faces I made stared back with the exact expressions I had given them, and offered no new insight. I did notice that one painting needed the skin tones warmed up a bit, so I took it home and obsessed over it a little more, knowing in the back of my mind, I was simply trying to address my own ambivalence about the show.

By the end of the day a darker, more unseemly narrative emerged about the next cycle of executive leadership in our country. I hunkered down in my studio and attended to the tweaking of that one last painting, while Trump’s aspirations were made manifest. In the morning my Facebook feed was filled with stories of children under great duress. One daughter of a friend woke up screaming because she was worried about being deported. Other friends who are educators described the stony silence and obvious depression among their students. The kids needed answers, and the adults weren’t yet up to the task.

I went back to the gallery to hang my final painting. At last the show made great sense to me. The work seemed strong. Not because Trump’s immanent reign validated my fears, but because every day is a passage into uncertainty. Coming-of-age is an ongoing state. We are all composites of all the developmental stages we have lived, and each stage has required its own surrender and loss. The accumulated versions of each self overlay one another like a palimpsest of scribbles performed over and over on the same sheet of paper. Whatever innocence or open-heartedness we posses must be nurtured and fiercely protected. That’s what I think my new paintings are about, anyway. If some of that comes across on its own, then I’ll be happy.

Juxtaposed opens at Walker Fine Art in Denver, Friday November 11, 2016. The show runs through January 7, 2017.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Off Ramp

The three-wheeled motorcycle passed me on the shoulder of the off ramp, careened dangerously up onto the grass bank, then somehow regained control and sped away northbound on Wadsworth Avenue. Its rider wore no helmet. Before my adrenaline could kick in, a monster pickup truck roared up behind me, jerked its wheel within inches of colliding, and came up along side me on two wheels in a cloud of dirt and grass. As I slammed to a halt, the truck tumbled several times into the oncoming lane of an adjacent ramp. I caught a glimpse of the driver, backlit, as he hunkered down for the impact. Glass exploded from the windshield as the truck pancaked down on it’s roof. The driver was dead. He had to be. By some miracle no other cars were involved. I was the sole witness. I shut off my car and called 911. Eternal seconds passed. “911, what is your emergency?”

“A guy just rolled his truck and I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”

I gave the voice my location and waited many minutes in desperate and eerie silence. I walked part ways toward the truck before reconsidering. I didn’t want to look in the cab. I knew the human psyche can come unglued by the sight of dissembled bodies. I chose not to be imprinted with the gruesome visuals.

I called my wife.

“Hi. Listen, I'm going to explain this quickly, but I can't talk long. I need you to pick up that take-out you ordered. And also walk the dogs later. A guy just crashed his truck and I think he's dead. I’m the only one here. I called 911, and they need me to wait here. I’m freaking out a little. Sorry. Yeah, I’m OK. I'll call you back as soon as I can”

A middle-aged woman in a Subaru pulled up behind me. She was on her phone to the police. We got out of our cars and stood beside each other, shaking. Several other cars had come along, but seeing us with smartphones in hand, figured we had it under control, so they weren’t obliged to stop. Or maybe it was clear this was a fatal crash, and there was nothing they could do except slowly rubberneck past.

The sun had just set behind dirty clouds and the sky was a bright nickel color. A cold breeze crept in from the foothills. “He’s gotta be dead,” said the woman. We agreed there was nothing to do except wait for the police, but I wondered if we were cowards justifying our moral inertia. “Did you see the three-wheeler?” The woman asked. “This was a road rage thing. The truck was chasing the bike all the way from the King Soopers over on Sheridan. All kinds of cars were run off the road. I’ve been following them for miles.” She explained that she and her husband are big bikers. “I called 911 to report the chase. The cops told me not to follow, but I did anyway. Bikers look out for each other.” She described the truck’s driver as shirtless, bald and covered with tattoos. The biker, by contrast, was small and dark skinned, possibly black or Hispanic. I immediately wondered what sort of biases were bubbling in her narrative. But who was I to say? She had witnessed the rage. I, its conclusion.

 More minutes crawled by. Still no emergency responders. I went to sit in my car. I replayed the crash in my mind. One detail that kept presenting itself was how quiet it had been. No squealing tires or horns. Just a sort of soft crunching as the truck rolled through dirt and grass, then skidded to a stop on it's roof.

Finally the parade of whirling lights and sirens descended upon the intersection. Cops sealed off the ramps and firefighters cautiously explored the wreck. A too-young-looking officer came up to my car. “Mister Howell? You are our only witness to the crash. We need you to be patient and work with us. You probably realize this was a fatality. Several people are going to want to talk to you. I don’t want to mislead you, we’ll be here awhile. Are you willing to help us put the story together?” A strange choice of words, I thought. “You mean like Humpty Dumpty?” I wanted to ask.

 What I said instead was, “Where’s your jacket? Aren’t you freezing?” He was not. “Exactly what happened?” he asked. I pointed to the little Y where the two off ramps merged. The concrete curb around the point where they came together was shattered in chunks all over the pavement. “The guy was merging behind me on my right, but swerved to miss me and ended up on my left, tumbling along beside me. The truck was probably going 70 when he hit that ramp. He actually passed me rolling.” Just then the thought entered my head that the driver had died trying to avoid me. It wasn’t my fault, but he was dead because I was in his way. I said this to the cop, who seemed unfazed. He was trained to tease the facts from wobbly, personal narratives. “You’re not responsible for any of this,” he said, “in fact, you are fortunate. If you had been a second slower he would have t-boned you at highway speed.” This was meant to get my head out of the spiral I was in; to make me feel lucky, I guessed. My shivering increased and my voice was shaky and unfamiliar to me. “Yeah, I suppose,” I said. The young cop nervously clicked his pen. “Why don’t you go sit in your car and warm up.” 

In my side mirror I could see they had pulled the body from the wreck. It was zipped into some sort of bright white vinyl bag and lying on the gravel shoulder. The Ambulance had turned off it’s lights. I noted that the officer had quizzed me with my back to the scene. Good technique, I thought. In a few moments he came over again to my window with a police report for me to fill out. “We need you to write as exact a description of what happened as you can, Mister Howell. Please feel free to use both sides of the page if you need.” I hadn’t been offered both sides of a page since grade school, and it struck me as generous in that insignificant way. I didn’t need both sides. I left out the dirty sunset and the eerie stillness. Also the way it seemed to happen in slow motion. And I left out the cold. The story was the worst kind. A blunt and ugly accounting of speed, position and direction. “Perfect’” said the cop.

Next I was asked to hang on just a while longer for the State Highway Patrol Investigator to come interview me. The fresh-faced cop and I tried some small talk while we waited. I knew he was assigned to me, and that one of his duties was to make sure I remained on the scene. We watched as the ambulance hauled its sad cargo up onto the ramp and pulled away without fanfare. A lone female officer in black uniform photographed the smashed truck from multiple angles. “Look how the truck lights are still on,” I said. “Don’t you turn them off?” “Why would we?” the officer wondered. “This is just weird,” I said. “I mean you look at that truck, and you think somebody is probably waiting at home for that guy, but he’s on his way to the morgue instead.” The cop advised me to stop feeling sorry for the driver, that he probably “wasn’t a very good guy.” I wondered how he could be so sure. “Alright,” he said. “You didn’t hear this from me, but he is an exact match to the description of a man who assaulted a woman in Denver a couple of hours ago. We know this is our guy. He’s been raging for hours. This is just the last in a series of bad decisions he made today,” said the officer. “But you didn’t hear that from me. The investigation’s ongoing.”

The young policeman held up one finger and disappeared into a different conversation. It used to be that if a cop had an incoming call, you’d hear the crackle and hiss of the other voice on a two-way radio. Nowadays they wear an earpiece, so when a call comes in, you never know if they’re talking to you or to somebody else. “Not a problem. Great. We’ll thank him for his help,” the officer said into the air. And just like that I was free to go home. It turned out the Highway Patrol Investigator thought my written report was good enough and he didn’t need to interview me. “Just one more thing,” said the cop. “Our Victims Advocacy Department offers crisis counseling. It’s free. You should probably talk to them. They can be here in a few minutes. We recommend you talk to them tonight.” And so I waited for one last public employee to attend to me. I liked that it was free, though I wasn’t expecting much of the visit. The cop then thanked me for my good citizenship and stuck out his hand. He suddenly seemed like a kid trying out a big word. “Citizenship” wasn’t something I was feeling, but I knew what he meant. I thanked him for his service as well. Shaking hands at a fatal crash site was memorably awkward, but we needed some sort of concluding gesture. It’s what people do.

The woman from the Subaru was back at my window with a lot to say. We had been separated by the police for our interviews, so we wouldn’t influence each other's stories. Now it was over. “Listen, they just let me go so I’m gonna get out of here. I’ve really gotta pee. This whole thing sucks. They told you he died on impact, right? I mean, he was obviously an asshole, but you gotta have some pity, right? I just said a little prayer to God to have mercy on his soul. Maybe you should too. You seem like a nice man. Are you OK to drive?”

It had gotten dark and quite chilly. Nearly three hours had passed. I had to pee too. The Subaru drove off and I settled in into the ugly, unsolvable existential implications of the crash.  What causes a man to come so undone with rage? A day of bad decisions, or a whole lifetime? Was mental illness a factor? Unmitigated traumas of his own? Chemical dependency? It was impossible to know, and not my responsibility to unravel, I knew this. Yet I also knew that not colliding with me was the last decision this man made, and for me, it was a good one. So I said the prayer the woman had urged me to say. There was no feeling in it. Feelings were swirling contradictions at that point. The words would have to suffice. The cop was right. I was fortunate. So I tried to make myself feel lucky, or thankful. But it was hard to know how to direct that thankfulness. To God? Blind luck? To the “Universe?” A lot of my friends use that sort of language. It’s like having a god without the challenge of things like worship, specific beliefs or obligations. Regardless, the problem for me isn’t what to call it. It’s how this power can involve itself in human lives in such an abstruse manner, and the seemingly capricious way certain people are spared tragedy, while others are not. To what end? I wondered. If God is Love, as I was taught, then it’s an incomprehensible and maddening love, for sure. I had just watched the silhouette of a man as his life was snuffed out, and in that same moment I was spared. What was I to do with that? It was absurd, but tempting to imagine a move had just been made in some cosmic chess game. The big picture was utterly impossible to apprehend. I wanted to throw my hands in the air. Instead I looked down at them, heavy and inert in my lap, and decided the dramatic relief wouldn't be worth the effort. My brain was awash in the chemistry of shock. I knew this. I remembered something about wrapping myself in a blanket, and maybe elevating my feet, or drinking electrolytes, or some such things. Instead I sat quietly and willed myself back into my body. The thought gently haunted me that whatever happened next, the decision was mine to make. And wasn’t I genuinely thankful for that?

Two women walked up the ramp toward my car. Both wore official looking IDs on lanyards that indicated they belonged behind the ropes at a tragedy. The older one, my age, was bundled up against the cold. The younger one, my daughter’s age, wore no coat, and shuffled up to the car with her arms wrapped tight around her sides. “Where is your coat?” I asked. At my age, I have earned the right to demand that of young people. “I’m OK,” the girl said. The older woman did most of the talking. She concentrated on the “next steps” after witnessing a violent death. Like how I would be preoccupied with searching for "meanings."  It was natural, she said. I was informed that the accident would replay repeatedly in my waking imagination and in my dreams, at least at for a while. And that fear might catch me by surprise. Like at intersections that resemble this one, or when big pickup trucks come up behind me quickly. All of this was a normal part of coping with the experience, she said, “unless you get stuck and find you can’t move past the memory.” There was a sort of scripted flow to her advice. The younger woman said “Yeah” and nodded her head a lot at what the older woman said. They encouraged me to talk about my experience, but it was clear they were looking for clues as to whether I was safe to drive myself home. The younger one offered me a mental health services brochure. I thanked her, and as they walked away I tossed it on the passenger side floor of my car, where it remains still. It’s there if I need it. 

All of the police and emergency vehicles were gone now except for one at the base of the ramp guarding the barricade. The truck was still on its roof with its lights on. I was light-headed with relief but exhausted from the emotional effort of coping with all of this. I laughed a little, finally, at my good fortune, but there was a bitter sadness tinting all my senses that would last for days. I thought I knew complex emotions, but this was something new. It was time for those next steps. Time to rejoin the living. So with all the intentionality and focus of a kid taking his first driving test, I put my hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, took a deep breath, and headed down the ramp, past the barricade, and into Tuesday evening traffic. Homeward.  

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Wishes From a West Virginia Tollbooth

photo: Kae Penner-Howell

The tollbooth lady wants to know if our dogs would like a holiday treat.
It’s late at night on a lonely stretch of interstate in the Appalachian Mountains. We’ve just driven eleven hours, with three more to go. We’re alert enough to drive, but not to answer simple questions.
“Your dogs, would they like a treat?”
“Oh sure. Yeah.”
The tollbooth lady peels the lid off a blue plastic tub and quickly hands us two dog treats, along with our change from the toll.
Merry Christmases are exchanged.
The dog treats are clearly made by hand. Each one a flattened cylinder of grainy brown dough, bent at one end to resemble a candy cane. Halfway along their length the treats are perforated with fork marks, to make them easy to break in half. Just like the kind from a pet store, only better.

We’re on our way to the east coast where my wife’s family live, and I’m preoccupied with thoughts of the upcoming visit. Wondering how - or if - I can help keep things simple. It’s an awkward fact: a big aspect of surviving the Christmas holiday seems to be a matter of pure performance. We’ll all engage in some aspect of role-playing over the next few days. You’d think we’d be seasoned professionals by the time we reach adulthood, but no other well-scripted event can come off the rails quite like Christmas. No day brings the “crazy” like Christmas. None other offers as many triggers for anxiety and depression, or sets the stage for family drama as Christmas.

At my in-law’s home, the holidays are shaded with a subtle but persistent yearning - the echo of events eight decades old. Back in the Great Depression, my wife’s mom, Laura was abandoned by her mother just before Christmas. She disappeared with her toddler daughter and was never heard from again by the family. This woman had reached some sort of breaking point, the details of which are lost to another time. Laura, along with her father and six of his children from a previous marriage, were left to fend for themselves.  The dad tried his best, but eventually had to surrender some of his remaining seven kids into foster care. He kept the older ones, since they could help raise each other. The youngest ones, including Laura, were sent to altogether new homes. Fractured households, abandonment and adoption were commonplace in the wake of the Depression, and the repercussions still ripple through many of those families. There’s much more to this story which isn’t mine to tell, but suffice to say that old wounds are wounds nonetheless, and in this family Christmas remains forever complicated.

The traffic around us increases alarmingly as we hit the Blue Ridge Parkway. The right lane is a blur of trucks hurrying the hard goods of the season to the brick-and-mortars of the mid-Atlantic. The left lane is crowded with impatient holiday travelers headed to their ancestral home towns. I imagine many of the cars around me are filled with families bucking up to the demands of the next few days, reviewing the ground rules for behavior, coaching about forbidden topics, and so on. Many of these pilgrims have left their chosen tribes of friends and co-workers, only to intentionally spend time among the people with whom they have the least in common: their own extended families. They are vowing various things. To not be passive-aggressive. To let things go. To be patient. I know for a fact that some of these people have it in mind to be deliberately kind. And they will try.

I picture the lady in the tollbooth rolling out her dog treats with the heels of her hands, twisting each into a cane, then toasting them on non-stick baking sheets in her West Virginia home. She’ll do this for days ahead of time, to make enough for the hundreds of dogs headed east in the way-backs of SUVs. I picture her peering into each car, looking for dogs who need treats. I wonder if her supervisors approve, or if the WVDOT has a policy provision for such generosity among its employees. I imagine she does this because she loves dogs, and also to stave off the mind-numbing boredom of working at a tollbooth. On a day like today thousands of cars pass under her watch. She has only a few seconds contact with each driver. There is no time for chit chat, let alone a conversation. She uses these brief moments to reach out to travelers by way of home-made dog treats. For a gesture so tiny - trivial, in fact - it is remarkably effective at creating a sense of welcome. It strikes me as a kind of drive-thru Eucharist for dogs. She had asked if our dogs wanted a treat, but in a way, what I heard was, "Take this. It is real. The first real thing you’ve been offered in days. Share it now with your dog, and go in peace.”

For many of us, the holidays may always be difficult, but they're rarely only difficult. They may also be a thousand other things. Some intrusion of ridiculousness and frivolity will break the tedium of ingrained patterns. Drunken board games and ugly sweater parties will do their best to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. We may even get brief glimpses of joy, or some of the other things mentioned in carols. If someone drags us to a house of worship, or even if we are left to our own thoughts for a few moments, we may connect with deeper currents of meaning available for contemplation in this dark season. The emptying out of events on our calendars. The long pause as the natural world holds its breath until spring. The glimmers of hope and renewal as the days begin to lengthen. The persistent and seemingly preposterous theme of redemption.

Up ahead the traffic funnels down into one lane around a work zone. I realize I’ve been staring almost exclusively at tail lights for two solid days. Drivers slow down to let each other into the one remaining lane. And so it begins: the small kindnesses and temporary civility that will crescendo over the next couple of days. Like children on their best behavior, this social largess is awkward and theatrical. Doors will be held open longer, tipping will briefly increase in restaurants, greetings with strangers will be bravely exchanged. Small gestures will lead to bigger gestures until finally, exhausted from all the effort, we will collapse back into our individual comfort zones and life will return to normal. Old familiar fears and small-mindedness will slowly be restored. But we will have spent some small measure of time being the best version of our selves, and briefly abiding our own beliefs, which is its own kind of holiday miracle. Is it not?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Lord, Bless These Hands

Gordon walks toward me with a bottle of wine protruding from the pocket of his cargo shorts. I ask, “Is that a bottle of booze in your pants, or are you happy to see me?” He doesn’t get the joke. Gordon’s an older guy and should know that tired groaner, but somehow it’s elluded him. That, or he's just distracted. I know Gordon from an advanced winemaking class we took together at a local winery. He’s here at the Denver County Fair to enter a bottle of his pride-and-joy in the amateur winemaking contest. It’s a show-off-y blend of french grapes from a certain region known for its sophisticated soil and nuanced weather (or maybe it’s the other way around). It’s a wine anyone would be proud to have made, yet as I walk with him over to the competition entry table, Gordon hesitates, suddenly shy. It’s a big deal to submit a hand-made thing for judgement, even if it’s just at a county fair.

Gordon tells me the most discouraging thought is that his wine might not even get drunk. “I don’t care if I don’t win a ribbon. I just can’t stand the thought of my wine being poured down a drain. I hope someone at least enjoys it.” Those words stick in my mind when I finally bring my own fermented experiments over to the judges. The county fair staff are encouraged to enter competitions as long as we’re not directly involved in judging, and since I am managing the art gallery, there is no conflict of interest entering my homemade hard cider and rose petal wine. I too dread the moment I retrieve my bottles only to discover them half full of the libations I’ve been babying for almost a year. So at the last possible moment, I resolve that the risk of rejection is worth the potential affirmation, and I surrender my creations for evaluation.

At church potlucks, and other places religious folks gather for meals, it’s common to hear a prayer of thanks that blesses the hands of the people who prepared the meal. The Christian version goes something like this: “Lord, we give you thanks for this meal, (etc, etc), And we ask that you bless the hands that made this food. May it strengthen us so that we may better serve you. In Jesus name, amen.”  As a kid who spent a lot of time at church picnics, the blessing of hands seemed curious to me. I always pictured ladies hands because cooking was pretty much women’s work back then. I imagined their hands had an invisible, sacred aura that got re-charged every time someone prayed for them, and that this somehow enabled them to be amazing cooks. It is no wonder the hands that create food are set apart for special recognition. Food is among the most fundamental sources of sensual joy we can experience, since it is basic to our survival. I can’t recall any prayers of blessing specific to other types of work, except maybe surgeons. Their hands were routinely busy patching up the old people in our church. But there were no blessings for the hands that prepared tax documents or did data entry or took away our garbage.

My favorite moment at the Denver County Fair happens on the last day, at the very end, after everyone goes home. This is when the call goes out over our walkie talkies to come divvy up the leftovers from the food and drink competitions. Don’t for a second imagine that stuff gets tossed in a dumpster. Some of us have been eyeing those cupcakes and lattice-topped pies all weekend. Generally, the creators of these dilectables don’t bother to circle back at closing time to claim the remains of their labor. This is good news for the staff. Most of us are dead on our feet by this point, so we summon what civility we have left to bargain over half eaten pies that have been sitting in display cases all weekend, and random bottles of home-brew (beer contestants are required to submit 2 bottles, one is for the judges, the second is a “backup.” These are rarely opened). My own haul after this year’s fair included various ambitiously-hopped beers with the word “imperial” in their titles. I also loaded up with several perfect slices of strawberry-rhubarb pie that were seemingly beamed down from heaven by someone’s righteous great grandmother, and an apple pie labeled “3 Sheets to the Wind Bourbon Apple Pie,” whose sugary spell I am under as I write.

I have no idea who made any of the things I’m nibbling on now. For the purpose of blind judging, each entry has an item number and a title, but nothing to indicate the identity of its creator. I suppose if I were especially determined I could track these people down, but it would take some serious poking around in an Excel spreadsheet I don’t have access to anymore. I’m not even sure what the point would be. I’m not a food critic or some sort of culinary talent scout. I’m just a random dude that ended up with county fair leftovers. The thing is, I’m really thankful for these things, despite their idiosyncrasies and technical flaws, or maybe because of them. What often gets labeled a flaw is just a departure from the expectations of the judges anyway. Most of what I’ve brought home is pretty delightful, and none of it is bad. So in the late summer night quiet of my back porch, I savor each edible creation, wishing I could thank each baker or brewer for the gift they didn’t know they gave me.

I ended up taking third place for both of my booze entries. The judges were unallied. Their remarks were contradictory and blunt, but somehow seemed fair. One said my cider had a sophisticated flavor profile, but lacked correct aroma. Another said it lacked complexity but was still drinkable. A third judge said it was nicely done and very drinkable, with hints of gardenia and honey. I’m still trying to parse all their comments. Coming from the art world - and before that a long career in advertising - I am prepared to triangulate this sort of messy feedback. Still, after nearly forty years of exposing myself to such critiques, I have yet to develop much immunity to their souring effects on my emotions. Anyone entering a contest like this must first battle their own self-doubt before they can offer up their talents to the world. After that we learn to take our lumps in a give-and-take process that hopefully leads to some sort of validation of our efforts. This is the bumpy path of the “third place” creative endeavor, and there is no shame in it. The trick is to buck-up, process the criticism, and move forward. This may be the single hardest thing any creative person has to do on a regular basis.

As we clear the last few items from the cooler it is evident that Gordon’s bottle is not among the sad, unconvincing wines left on the back of the shelf. Instead, I find it in a box of empties headed for recycling. I recognize it by it’s distinctive tapered shape, the kind normally used for light-bodied wines. As I pull it from the box I am relieved to see about a half inch of sediment sloshing around the bottom of the bottle - evidence the wine was drunk, and possibly enjoyed, but not poured out. Though his wine didn’t win a ribbon, I assume Gordon is tenacious enough to give it a try again next year, as will I. In the meantime I say a quick prayer of blessing for his hands, and then for my own. I don’t know if that’s how it’s supposed to work, but it’s worth a shot.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Work In Progress

When you don’t hear from me for a long time, it’s because I’m working. Or rather, stumbling around in some new rabbit hole, and trying to make something of the things I find. This I call work. Clearly it’s not the kind that pays bills, or the kind you avoid like cleaning the oven or going to the DMV, but the kind that is so engaging that you forget to go on social media to talk about yourself for weeks on end. I’ve been working on some new paintings for a show I have coming up, so there is some degree of external pressure, but no one is standing over me, checking on my progress or providing direction, so it remains pretty soulful work. I’m thankful for that freedom.

The only reason I bother to write this now is that Facebook algorithms have goaded me into it. Every week I get a little reminder about my Facebook page - the one for my artwork - that tells me how many visits I’ve had and that sort of thing. It usually tries to guilt me into posting something new by saying “You haven't visited Mark Penner Howell in a while and there's some activity you might have missed. To keep people interested in your Page, please post something new or respond to some of your new activity.” Given the language, it’s easy to suppose Facebook is just looking out for me, but when I consider that any post I make must also be “boosted” by paying real money to reach my audience, then Facebook’s actual motivation is laid bare. Their feigned concern is just a programmed message triggered by my prolonged inactivity. And still, I have to admit the Facebook bots are correct, it’s been a while.

For an artist trying to create a new body of work, it’s necessary to carve out a distraction-free work environment (both the physical space, and somehow also your state of mind), and to stay in that space as long as possible, returning to it often, until your new “work” becomes clear to you. This is basic stuff for any practicing creative person, but the thing I often need to remind myself is to go as deep as I can and stay there as long as possible, especially in the initial stages of creative exploration, before coming up for air. The temptation is to commit to halfway decent ideas, familiar ideas, before you’ve discovered something truly new. The tricky part is to slow down and linger with your inspiration and really stretch out the time you spend in that concentrated state of creative flux. For me it’s an act of discipline that usually precludes the use of social media in the studio. Apologies, Facebook.

The guy across the table from me in the coffee shop this morning asked where I get my inspiration. We were meeting to discuss a commissioned piece. I was flummoxed by the question, as I usually am, since there is no one answer. I wish there was a kind of psychic Costco where I could just stock up on ideas. Then I could simply give him directions. Instead I told him most artists have a catalog of themes or image fragments or half finished stories that just sort of bob around in the back of the mind until a catalyst begins to pull some of those pieces together. I have found this mostly to be a function of the subconscious. Something at work in that protean mental engine causes the good ideas (or at least the shiny, attractive ones) to bubble up to the threshold of consciousness. The conscious mind need only be on duty, or at least nearby, to receive the thought. This experience of suddenly wakening to a fresh idea is what people have taken to calling the “aha” moment. The mumbo-jumbo part is that practically anything can trigger it.

 To any severely left-brained person, this is all going to sound like utter horse shit. Sure there are things that can make creative inspiration more likely, but they aren’t remotely quantifiable or repeatable in a laboratory setting. Recently I spent a whole weekend trying to have some exciting new ideas for paintings. Right away the half-decent ones began to present themselves, but nothing seemed worth diving into. The weekend was a wash. The following Monday morning I went about doing some of the chores I’d avoided all weekend. At the grocery store, while scanning my rewards card, the friendly voice inside the machine said “Welcome, valued customer.” That message was all I needed to pull together a whole host of ideas I’d been having about materialism, fate, and the power of the individual. I already had most of the images I needed in my head but they needed some sort of context. And though the phrase wasn’t remotely visual, it suddenly provided the framework for me to organize my thoughts so I could begin pushing the images around in a meaningful way. This, I’m afraid, is as close as I can come to describing my inspiration. I regret it isn’t more stirring or provocative.

I have an artist friend who routinely talks about her muse. I’ve always thought the idea of a muse is sort of romantic and fey. For the longest time I assumed she was just being metaphorical, but she’s so consistent in her personalization of this inspirational force, and so reverent toward “her,” that I’ve begun to realize my friend’s muse is more literal than I had allowed for. It works for her. Every artist has some personal version of this, we just talk about it differently. My own religious background makes me wonder to what extent the creative impulse isn’t the distant echo or fingerprint of the divine somehow still at work in the world - another seemingly antiquated idea, for sure, but also workable. So whether you think creativity is a function of a trans-personal “collective” unconscious that forever seeks expression in order to ensure the adaptability of our species, or whether it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re kind of all talking about the same thing. In the end all these distinctions may be false dichotomies. A subject as big as the mechanism of creative impulse is at the limits of our language to describe. Multiple points of view are to be encouraged.

Back in my basement studio sit four new paintings in various states of completion. None of them are actually ready for you to look at. One has recently emerged from an extended ugly-duckling phase and just today I realized it’s the one all the others are going to have to live up to. You artists know what I mean. If I’m lucky and stay focused, I might eke out one or two others that do what they are supposed to do as well as this one. We’ll see. I’ve only got a few more weeks to finish everything up for my next show. Until then you’ll have to use your imagination, and this will have to serve as an update. It’s a paltry offering, but hopefully enough to appease the almighty Facebook data gods.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Waving at the sky

Buffalo Creek burn scar – Photo: Kae Penner-Howell

 Wondering and Wandering 

 I can’t say exactly why we chose to hike for half a day on this little-used and not particularly scenic section of the Colorado Trail. Maybe because we were bored with the familiar beauty of the nearby Buffalo Creek trails and needed something new. By contrast, this windswept footpath meanders through a decades-old burn scar. The mostly flat route offers little in the way of navigational challenges, and even as a specimen of devastation it isn’t much to look at. The fire that raged here was so hot even the topsoil caught fire. Subsequent flooding and erosion ensured no forest would soon return. What remains is an undulating boulder field with a ribbon of single-track snaking through it, a few skeletal spires that once were pine trees, and the kind of grasses that can eke out a life on cracks in rocks. Still we opt to give it a go. To see what we may see.

A trail that winds through a forest naturally accommodates the landscape. It twists and turns according to the placement of trees and creeks, drop-offs, and bodies of water. But when the trees burn up and the creeks run dry, the shape of the remaining path ceases to make the same kind of sense. In the years since the fire, this trail has straightened itself out a little, but there are still the occasional zigs and zags that suggest phantom obstacles. The ghosts of trees long incinerated. It is mildly disorienting to hike such a path, its layout strangely at odds with the land it tries to make accessible. Like the solemn, circuitous route one follows to the center of a labyrinth laid in stone on a cathedral floor, I begin to wonder if the point of all this winding has something to do with observance of a ritual, its purpose long ago lost in flames.

Chartres Cathedral maze. Image: Wiki-Commons

We begin to look for some sort of destination, a place to call our journey complete. Maybe somewhere with a view where we can eat our sandwiches. A hill in the distance is crowned by a small stand of Ponderosa pines, unlikely survivors of the Buffalo Creek Fire. Surely there would be decent views of the Continental Divide from up there, and the trees could provide some shade for our lunch. We agree to make it our turn-around point, but as we get closer the trail angles away disappointingly into a rocky ravine. Having already fixed our expectations on that summit, we decide we are done with the trail, and begin to climb.

There is something thrilling about going off-trail (where allowed by law, and common sense), even in a place like this where being on or off the trail are nearly identical. The first step off a path always initiates a heightened awareness in me. I’m careful about how and where I walk, both to lessen my impact in a place unaccustomed to human footfalls, and also for reasons of safety and efficiency of effort. To exit the well-worn trail is to commit to your own wits. Each step is a tiny symbolic rejection of the known. Admittedly this isn’t much of an undertaking in a denuded landscape where the way home is more-or-less apparent. Still, there are places not far from here where to walk just a few feet from the trail renders it, and all it represents, indistinguishable from the natural world that surrounds it – the way back home can suddenly be obliterated by nothing more than a field of tall grass and wildflowers, humbling in their complete indifference to us. Like astronauts on a space walk, we are tethered to all that is safe and familiar by contrivances of human effort. Good trails allow us to pretend we are better connected with the natural world than we may actually be.

Photo: Kae Penner-Howell

Up on the hill we find an old dirt road running along through the trees. It leads out into a meadow and across a grassy ridge where it doubles back abruptly in a tight loop, as if changing its mind. The fire has opened up unnatural vistas here - the kind you would ordinarily have 4000 feet higher, where trees simply won’t grow. To the north, the icy Mount Evans massif glows blue-white on the horizon. Ahead of us, a few yards past where the road ends, we see what looks like a small brick chimney. Heading over to check it out, we find it’s only about 4’ tall and completely solid - not a chimney at all, but some sort of marker set on a round flagstone base. About a foot above the base are three concentric iron rings circling the structure like the rings of Saturn, but also like some sort of footrest, or step. On top of the structure is a brass survey marker set in concrete. This is what surveyors call a benchmark, and it is where we get that word. But why the metal rings, and the large flagstone base? The structure is only mildly perplexing at first, like any sort of old weathered object you might stumble across while hiking.  But when we step around to the other side and see a plaque which reads: HISTORIC UFO MOORING POST, things start to get interesting.

I’ve heard of Hippies and New-Agers appointing themselves ambassadors to extraterrestrials. There’s even a UFO landing pad in the desert down near New Mexico, but it’s sort of a tourist thing. Is this a cultural remnant of such an effort? We busy our brains with all the possibilities. Did a UFO-believer commandeer an old government survey post, or was it the other way around? Or maybe they collaborated on this dual-purpose marker in the middle of nowhere. This is Colorado after all. We have a town with a house cat for mayor (Divide), another town with a festival to raise money for a home-made cryogenics experiment (Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland), and a town where all adult head-of-housholds are required to own guns (Nucla) - and I’m only getting started with the civic weirdness in Colorado. It’s conceivable this marker was some such partnership. Or it could simply be somebody’s obscure joke. The word ‘historic” could be a giveaway. Do the plaque-makers mean to say that UFOs used to moor here at some point long ago? Have the UFOs moved on to more updated mooring posts? And how did they moor, exactly? I picture flying saucers bobbing gently a few feet off the ground, a pair of long leather reigns looped around the mooring post. It starts to seem like it has to be a joke, but why? Nerd humor? It’s impossible to know, and there’s not a soul for miles to ask, so we snap a photo and begin to look for a suitable way down the hill.

Photo: Kae Penner-Howell

Below, we see another forest service road and pick our way carefully down through loose talus to meet it. As we guessed, around a bend or two the road delivers us back to our trail, which we dutifully retrace for several dull miles back to our car. In defense of boring trails, let me point out they are a reliable way to get lost in your own thoughts while obtaining the health benefits of a low intensity work-out, if you’re into that sort of thing. For me, this kind of mobile meditation tends to deliver me to my daydreams. Before long I’m crunching along in a half trance, staring down at the left-right-left-right blur of my feet, when all at once a door opens onto a memory I had long ago boxed away. Our visit up that hill had guaranteed this door would fly open, but I hadn’t seen it coming. The memory that overtakes me is less the recollection of an event, and more the story of the memory of the event. A story I long ago stopped telling, even to myself.

A Thing in the Sky

There was a puzzling thing in the sky over our car. My mom was driving, my little brother was in the front seat next to her. I was in the back. We were headed west on a country road in upstate New York on a late summer afternoon. The thing in the sky appeared to move along beside us, a few dozen yards off to the side. Was it following us or simply headed the same direction? My little brother shrieked and dove into the footwell of the passenger seat where he huddled in a fetal position. Was he terrified or just being dramatic? This was in the days when seat belts were a mere suggestion and children were pretty much free to move about the car as they wished. I moved over against the window. Mom gripped the steering wheel tighter and sped up. Was she trying to outrun the thing or simply hurrying home to change the situation? I wished my brother would sit up. I could not take my eyes off the thing in the sky. I stared and stared but couldn’t get a fix on it. It was so completely outside my frame of reference that I wasn’t able to decide what it was. It was big as a house, but smooth and elongated. Like a blimp but smaller and sleeker. There did not appear to be windows, and there were no insignia or graphics of any kind on its surface. It had a row of small lights in a horizontal band which ran its length, and though it shames me deeply to say this, the lights were indeed green. After several minutes beside us, the thing in the sky rocketed off to the south, disappearing beyond the big hill on the Rosecrance farm.

Soon we were safe at home in our driveway, un-traumatized. There had been no alien abduction. No anal probes. I didn’t have nightmares or 'act out' after this. Instead, the feeling I remember having afterward was disappointment. I wasn’t done looking at the thing. I hadn’t figured out what I thought it was, or even which end I was looking at. I felt cheated. It was yet another cool thing that had ended too quickly. In days that followed I kept looking to the skies, hoping the thing would swing back over my neighborhood, and a little frightened it actually might.

Ezikel's Chariot vision, by Matthaeus Merian
When our dad got home he did not laugh at our story, probably because my mom was pretty freaked out. We talked about it a lot at first, but only as a family. Why had it happened to us? We didn’t even believe in such things. We were good Christian people. Our superstitions were entrenched in orthodoxy. We weren’t given to fringy group hallucinations. Then someone pointed out the bible describes something like UFOs in the book of Ezekiel. This helped. Not because it explained anything, but knowing it was in the bible meant God was probably wise to it. Even so, before long we stopped talking about the thing in the sky because we simply didn’t know what to make of it. I knew instinctively it wasn’t a good idea to speak of it outside the family. I’ve only slipped up once or twice since then - until now - and the effect was never good. Try to imagine how alienating and disgraceful it is to have a first-hand UFO story. It actually makes dreadful party talk – guaranteed to make you seem paranoid, conspiratorial, or very bi-polar. You learn to keep the memory stashed away in a box in the back of your mind. And every time you get it out and re-remember it, it proves to be an almost useless thing.

Almost Useless

I’m startled back into the here-and-now by the partly decomposed carcass of a small animal just ahead of me on the trail, its rib bones jutting out at broken angles. Probably it’s a rabbit, given the grayish fur with tufts of white. I holler at my dogs to LEAVE IT, using my most serious voice. They nose it quickly – because I told them not to – but seem uninterested. As I pass the carcass I watch it literally transform from a decaying animal to a trampled prickly pear cactus. Shreds of dried gray grass are tangled in it’s spines. A white fuzzy mold covers its blackened fruit. It’s a simple mistake of perception with quite different implications. I puzzle for a moment as my brain abandons one certainty for another.

It’s a wonder that our species not only survives, but flourishes, when we are so unscrupulous about the particulars of the real world. We see a thing and are certain of it. A moment later the thing changes completely and so does its meaning. A dead rabbit becomes a cactus.  We may be momentarily flummoxed, but the neural pathways in our brains accommodate the updated information. We adapt, despite the mental dissonance we feel in the wake of our initial perception. Clearly our brains are only partly hard-wired to think a certain way, otherwise we would stick to our conclusions, no matter what. Luckily there’s a whole lot of gray matter where our neurons keep their affiliations loose. This flexibility seems to be a good thing, and may be the advantage that keeps day-dreamers in the gene pool. Evolution would suggest that being half-aware of our surroundings wouldn’t work to our favor as a species, yet somehow our partial engagement with reality frees us up to be creative problem-solvers. We seem to be the only species where beliefs, ideologies, visions and outright delusions are foundational to some of our greatest discoveries and accomplishments. Think pyramids, nuclear bombs. Las Vegas.

I decide to ask my mom and brother what they remember about that UFO event. 

As we near our car the surroundings resolve into something more familiar and ordinary. Gone are the fire-haunted boulder fields and disorienting views. Later at home, I use Google Earth to fly over our route to see if the satellite photos yield any additional insight into this odd corner of the mountains. It’s easy enough to locate the UFO mooring post, if you know where to look, but I’m surprised to see the road that accesses it seems to be off limits. Zooming down to Street View, I can make out a locked gate and a No Trespassing sign where the road meets the highway. Evidently, extraterrestrials are welcome, but you and I, not so much.

A week later at Thanksgiving dinner with my family, I mention the thing in the sky. It’s been 45 years since the afternoon it shadowed us down that country road, so I’m not hopeful my mom and brother have any better access to primary memories than I do. We haven’t spoken of it in decades. Still I want to know what they do recall, and if their stories intersect with mine – or if we’ve all drifted hopelessly away into private embellishments. Somehow, even mentioning the thing in the sky sends my mom and brother into animated re-tellings of their own versions. They begin comparing notes and suddenly all hope for objectivity is lost. My brother remembers far too many details for a kid who spent almost the whole time on the floor of the car. But he did recall that the object seemed to be glowing, as if illuminated from within. I picture the blurry glow from inside one of those inflatable Frosty the Snowman-type lawn ornaments. This triggers a strong recollection and I feel that his memory of this detail may be correct. Maybe it did glow. Or maybe I’ve heard my brother’s story so many times that what I’m feeling is a nostalgia for his version of it. It’s impossible to know. My mom only remembers that there was something large following along side us, low in the sky, and that she was concerned about getting us all home safely. No other details mattered to her.

After dinner my brother redeems himself by pulling up several websites on his i-pad with information that could corroborate our experience. He’s not a UFO enthusiast. More of a research junkie. One website is a searchable database of thousands of UFO sightings compiled from reports stretching far back into the last century. It seems there were many, many descriptions of odd things in the sky in our neck of the woods around the time in question. Spinning disks, glowing orbs, hovering boomerangs and silent cigar-shaped projectiles. They appeared day or night, to many or few. What is it with UFO sightings in rural areas? I wonder. Are extraterrestrials obsessed with our agricultural practices? Or do city people just not bother with objects in the sky?

Another website indicates we lived near a small air force base - a possible point of origin for test flights of experimental military aircraft. Aha! I decide this is the answer I like best. I have no idea whether it is true. I just like it because it seems reasonable and doesn’t demand a thing of me. No major shift in beliefs. This was during the Cold War, after all, the Baroque era at the Pentagon, when our military leader’s most creative thinking was poured into the absurd proliferation of experimental gadgetry, much of it useless and unfeasible. 

And so the family arrives at the place we always do with the thing in the sky, a place of familiar unknowing, where a shrug or a “who can say?” signals we are done with the topic, and the conversation is again free to drift where it will. Later in my room, my thoughts return to experimental flying things. I am drawn in by several images that Google serves up under the search term “experimental military blimps.” It could have been this one. Or that one. I picture them each taking a turn flying beside our car, low and silent. Each is equally feasible.

Human Benchmark

Stapelton control tower.
Image: Wiki-Commons
I was born in an airport. I live at an airport. Two preposterous yet ordinary truths. The first is explained by the fact that my hometown airport, originally a hub for Air Mail service in upstate New York, outlived its logistical purposes and was re-fitted as a community hospital. I was born there a few years later. It still looked like an airport when I was a kid. Every time I ended up there for stitches or a shot, I could pretend I was going on a fancy trip somewhere. But we never flew anywhere, except for one time when we came to Colorado on vacation. We flew into the old Stapleton Airport in Denver.
Today I live on the site of that airport. The Stapleton neighborhood in east Denver was redeveloped as a massive 'urban infill' project after the airport was relocated in the 1990’s. I’ve pored over vintage maps and determined that our house sits roughly at the far end of the old Concourse E.

Prior to moving here, that family vacation was my only experience of Colorado. It was two summers after the UFO event, and my parents used some inheritance money to bring us out to a Dude Ranch. It was our first and only vacation that wasn’t a car trip. We bought 'western' shirts at the one department store in our town before the trip. At the Stapleton airport, the dude ranch shuttle driver spotted us immediately. We drove down through the Rampart Range to the Lost Valley Ranch down near Deckers. I was twelve years old and completely smitten with Colorado. I knew I could probably never live here, but for the price of a black felt cowboy hat from the Lost Valley Ranch gift shop, I could pretend. Six states and thirty-five years later I moved to Colorado. I learned the dude ranch had been nearly destroyed by the Hayman forest fire a few years ago. The buildings were spared, but thousands of acres of trees in every direction were burned to the ground. It turns out this ranch is just a stones throw from the burn area where we recently found the UFO mooring station.

These fragments of happenstance are benchmarks in an oddball narrative I’m still somewhere in the middle of experiencing. We’ve all got some version of this. Like pins on a big map that I can’t get up high enough to read, my coincidences may be proof of some sort of pattern beyond my reckoning. It’s possible I’ll never know. It turns out I’m not that much of a stickler for certainty anyway. I’ve never found my own attempts to apprehend it to be that reliable. Each time I think I’ve solved some big life question, a constellation of unknowns circles in to fill the void. Maybe the acquisition of certainty would matter more to me if I were a religious fundamentalist or an atheist. Instead, the need to have all the answers seems like a very useless anxiety.

In Buddhism there is the notion that some things are flat-out unknowable. Buddha is said to have refused any discussion of them whatsoever. These are known as the 14 Unanswerable Questions, and each has to do with things like the nature of the self, whether time and space are infinite, whether there is an afterlife, and so on. Delineating each of these questions with a number and specific description seems to belie the fact that they are unanswerable, but Buddha said that to entertain them is a craving which leads to sickness and misery. 

The early Christian church had a similar approach to questions of ultimate knowledge, best exemplified by a philosophy called the “Via Negativa,” an apophatic theology now mostly lost to contemporary evangelical Christianity, but still widely practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church. This perspective insists that God (or the Ultimate Good) can only be described in the negative, since what IT is, is wholly beyond our comprehension or ability to describe. Therefore, we can say that God is not evil, God is not ignorant, and so on. But here’s where it gets extra squirrely: God can neither be said to exist, nor to not exist, because all questions of existence are framed by limits of the human intellect which is a finite product of the temporal world (which by definition, God transcends). Got it? The modern mind may detect a circular logic at work here, but practitioners of this theology would argue that only by emptying the mind of all notions of God, other than pure goodness, can we hope to experience IT. This is because the Divine cannot be discovered, but must reveal itself to us. Prayer is said to be the mechanism to make this experience accessible, but the practice of humility, thankfulness and love are the virtues that make it possible.

Religion aside (whew!), it’s unlikely anyone would argue that the practice of humility, thankfulness and love isn’t the exact right path to be on at all times. Not that any of those three virtues are easy. The key idea is that they become a practice. I think about this stuff a lot when I’m out hiking in the mountains, particularly if I’m alone, though I’ve never actually set out to be contemplative. Usually I just want to explore some new trail. But then it just sort of happens, an effect of silence, the physical rhythm of hiking, and the awe I feel at my surroundings. It’s easy to be thankful at such times, and when thankfulness kicks in, humility and love are normally pretty close by. It may not be a traditional sort of spiritual path, but tromping around in the wilderness is my own Via Negativa.  

View toward Pettingell Peak from Continental Divide Trail. Photo: Mark Penner-Howell

One of my favorite places to explore is up on the Continental Divide, just west of Denver. Little by little I’m trying to hike as much of it as I can. Though I have logged many dozens of miles along its spine, it’s certain I’ll never complete it, given the shortness of the hiking season and the frequency of electrical storms that force me down. Recently I’ve spent a lot of time on the trails around Rollins Pass, a low spot on the Divide long considered the safest place for planes to cross over the Rocky mountains. In the days before large commercial jets - which gain altitude quickly and don’t need to look for low spots - this was the standard route for passenger flights headed west out of Denver. At 11,676’ elevation, the relative lowness of Rollins pass is debatable. Still it is the best approach for small aircraft going up and over the mountains. Nearby is a mountain I like to climb called James Peak, which rises another 1600’ above the pass. From its top you are practically at eye level with many of the planes crossing over. Because James Peak is in a remote wilderness area, by the time you reach its windy summit there may be more people nearby in the sky than on the ground. In such a setting it is impossible for me to not wave at the planes, as ridiculous as that may be. I keep my wave nice and simple - more like a salute - so pilots don’t think I’m in distress. It’s something of a privilege to serve as a human benchmark in such remote and lovely places. Whether anyone looking down takes the gesture as my way of giving testament to the impossibly strange miracle of being alive, or whether they simply have a laugh at my expense, I’ll never know. I’m just happy to be up there poking around, doing my best to live in the present, and once in a while getting a peek at the indescribable. I keep suspecting that this sort of immersion in the moment creates an intimacy with the world that is more about “being” than knowing - a more useful thing in the long run. So that is why I wave at the sky. I don’t always do it, just when someone is close enough that I know they can see me. Whether or not anyone ever waves back is unknowable, and I’m okay with that.

- m.p.h.

Continental Divide Trail, looking south near Berthoud Pass, Colorado. Photo: Mark Penner-Howell