A Study of Murphy’s Law Part Three: Letting Go

All summer long I knew that the only closure I would get would have to come from Hermit’s. I needed to see that you were no long down there, waiting. My heart raged for days before we hit that trail, and I prayed and prayed and prayed that if you were still there, that I would find you. And if you weren’t, that I would learn to stop looking.

When we went back down Hermits a week before I left, the Canyon fought back with everything it had. We packed as light as all get out and I felt sick knowing that if you were down there, I wouldn’t have enough to save you. The whole hike down I looked for you in every crevasse, I looked for you between boulders and under trees, I believed that I would be able to see your plaid shirt someplace that everyone else had missed. You were everywhere. I saw you crawling across every rock layer, gaunt and accusing and ready for salvation, and I was so afraid to touch you with these cursed hands of mine. When we reached the place where we met, I stopped breathing. I kept hiking but I stopped breathing until I could no longer maintain that kind of anabolic activity and sat down midtrial and erupted into tears. My hiking group joined me and Jamie’s calm lake aura settled on my shoulder while Joe and Jacob looked skeptically from rocks across the path. It took ten minutes of hyperventilation and telling you not to come back unless you were coming back until we were able to push on. I lost feeling in my hands and face but when we reached Hermit’s creek, I felt at ease.

My friends made me laugh every second of that hike and I slipped into a post-panic attack nap with my head propped up on a rock and the bubbling stream of life slowly rocking my ears to sleep. After eating dinner and drinking some beer we went to sleep with most of us laid out like sardines, open to the Canyon on top of a blanket. I didn’t sleep a wink. I felt bugs crawling all over us and I stared at the clouds rolling past the starry night sky and I figured if you had turned into a Canyon ghost now was the time you would come pull me over the edge the nearest cliff.

We woke up at two AM to start hiking and within half an hour we encountered a rattlesnake that nearly took off Jamie’s foot and set Joe off on a puking spree. Jamie and I continued on a stupid voyage across the Tonto while the boys went back up Hermits. It was so dark and we had never been on that trail before and I felt like I could slide right off of that darkness over the edge of something no one else in the world has ever seen. I wasn’t suicidal, just disconnected. We got lost some three times and ended up at a washed out campsite with no direction, no sunlight, and no hope. We debated our options and realized that Merril’s wife, and “the experienced hiker”, and you were plaguing both of our minds. This was the place where people disappear and are never found. Only after a massive scorpion that I now know is apparently the most poisonous scorpion in N. America almost made it’s way up my pant leg did we spring out of there back in the direction we came from, almost getting lost once again.

We caught up with the boys and took our sweet time getting out of that rebellious ravine, tossing around the idea that maybe Hermit’s is so terrible because it’s rebelling against the gondola that used to be installed there. Its chaos is a form of resistance to the colonization by humankind. When I exited the Canyon that time, I wasn’t crying and I felt lighter, but I still missed you. I still miss you. And I mourn for the future of that place that will only get less wild from here on out if mankind has anything to do with it.

A good friend of mine recently wrote to me saying, “Leave the Canyon behind. There are much greater adventures to be had…” and I know she meant I have to leave you behind too. But I don’t know how. You were the two minutes I let go, the rope I let slip through my fingers, the trigger my shaking finger pulled without knowing it was even attached to a hand that held a gun. I do not know how to leave you behind. Just as every stranger at night is the man that pressed a knife against my chest, every lone traveler I see is you. They’re all you. I still see that place where we met so clearly, as if Michelangelo himself painted that encounter on the backs of my eyelids. Maybe I am still carrying around the weight of your empty gallon jug. I have taken every step necessary to not think about why my shoulders feel so heavy but God, they feel heavy. Everything here feels heavy, especially the oxygen content of the atmosphere.

I liked to refer to the Canyon as the epicenter of chaos, a spinning blackhole that pulls reality apart the closer you get to the edge of it. From day one everything felt dystopian. The tourists felt like visitors to the zoo, completely unknowing of how easy it would be for the tiger in the cage to rip their throats out. Week one, we had the gunman. We lay flattened in our beds giggling out of fear as we watched shadows glint past our window followed by the echo of a cops command. Every week there was something new and unexpected and completely wrong. It was Murphy’s Law, anything that could go wrong, did go wrong, and the closer you got to the edge of the Canyon, the worse it became. There was everything from alarms that went off at random, love triangles, mountain lions, rashes, the girl we found in the woods, landslides, cactus battlewounds, and you. And that’s just the short list. I remember asking my roommate if the national park she had worked at last summer was like this. She said, “no, this is different”.

A few weeks after you went missing, that same roommate speculated that the Canyon wasn’t the black hole of destruction, but that I was. She said that all these things that were happening only happened to her when she was with me. I didn’t want her to be right because that would mean that you would have made it out alive if our paths hadn’t intersected. A week later, she was at the part of the Canyon where that one guy shot himself and I wasn’t there with her and even though I grieved for his life and for that exposure she had to experience, I took it as a sign that maybe, just maybe it wasn’t all my fault. The piece of my heart that lives in England has had made that claim before, the claim that chaos gravitates towards me. He called it The Asfeldt Effect™. I had always just assumed that my life was slightly off kilter, overlapping with a dimension humans are not supposed to be able to perceive. He was the first person to ever make me believe that unpredictability was beautiful.

The whole summer felt like I was just holding my breath waiting for the next piece of chaos to occur, like I was standing frozen in a forest full of dead trees and wind of 40 mph. Who knew when the next log would come toppling down, who knew who would be under it when it landed. After you, I secretly hoped I would be under the next one.

I wonder if I had never met you, if I would be able to let go of Arizona, if coming back to Oklahoma wouldn’t have been/be so hard for me. I still hold my breath every time I see the sun set and I still feel the cardinal pull to the West when I close my eyes. No matter where I was in Arizona, I always knew exactly which direction the Canyon was. It was like a sixth sense that left faint traces of blood along my teeth and no matter how much water I drink, my thirst for desert sand cannot be quenched. I am trying to let you and the Canyon go and I think I am getting there but it still feels an awful lot like I am losing a part of myself in the process, and losing a part of God too. He was so real and relatable and accepting of my neurotic backward hell-bent on running away type of darkness when I sat cross legged at the edge of that void, but here He is starting to feel more and more like expectations I will never meet and answers I will never receive. I know that is not the truth of who He is, but this life is not the truth of who I am and I think the Holy Spirit feels that disconnect.

Now, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to that land of destructive enchantment, but I do know that it both broke my heart and made me laugh at the same time and I think that means something. It will always be the balance between the nearness of death and the beauty of life. I want to go out into The Beyond with as much bravery as those mountain goats that disobeyed gravity had, but I am still learning to forgive my chattering teeth and eyes that dampen at everything. Please forgive me if one day I walk out into a new daylight and I do not take you with me; I cannot carry you forever. Omar didn’t want me to, and I don’t think the real you would want me to either.

If you’re reading this, and now I’m speaking to all of you, not just Ralph, don’t settle for only telling stories of the past, but lay awake at night next to the hearts that beat for you and write new stories with them in the constellations of every boring nightstand lamp. Hold the hands of those holding your hands and allow your past to stay in your past and allow forgiveness to be a word you recognize in every language. There will be more Canyons and we will find the next fingerprint of God and some people will have enough faith for the rest of us to rest our weary heads and say, “I’m not sure 100% of the time but still I will choose love.” I suppose I will always feel a subconscious pull towards that desolate terrain, but I will choose to keep my eyes fixed on the horizon and I will know that the sun rises just as fiercely on adventures filled with sidewalks and street lamps as it does on adventures filled with rivers and rock layers. May you rest in peace, my Canyon, and may you always bring peace to those that rest in you.

Vagabound.

The leaves

Begin

To dispose themselves around my feet.

I feel the cold front,

Winter,

A metal barrel pressed against my chest.

Cold.

I remember: you are supposed to be happy

You are supposed

To be.

Be.

Do not forget the lights, the dusting, the warmth,

The pinecones, the sugar, the glow, the laughter,

The cold.

I am back to that one Christmas tree,

That eternal zero degree warmth

And the couch that held

You.

Back then

It was my greatest accomplishment to make you laugh

Back then;

Your laugh shimmered in Christmas lights

Reflected in one

Snowy

Peak.

We have all been weathered into loneliness.

I will be:

Weathered, away,

Here.

The leaves,

They take my breath away,

I think, coldly, warmly,

Elucidate me, leaves

I am falling

With

You.

The Holiest Communion

 

When that cup passed from one hand to the other the word absolution became solidified like rain that falls at 11:59pm on December 21st. We ushered in a snow capped mountain, a glacier that stayed white and dense all year round, white like the robes John dreamed of. Our body: a bag of old WonderBread ripped with grimy fingers and presented like an engagement ring. We were unified in our embracing of jokes like “The Body of Christ: the best thing since sliced bread.” We didn’t have anything better, holier, purer, than sliced bread. I imagined the plasticky wafers I’d been consuming at communion since childhood and I realized that all those other communions were Wheaties in the face of this one. This one was Captain Crunch, Peanut Butter even. No other sandwich will pass my lips without bringing me back to that place of WonderBread salvation. Those wafers of old were good but bland, or at least as good as a wooden pew and “Peace Be With You” salvation is. Not that that kind of salvation is bad or even below average, I know tons of souls who find Jesus in the two-by-fours of that seating arrangement, but me? I’d rather be wished “Life Be With You” than “Peace Be With You”, I want a life that embodies the full spectrum of chaos to peace. I’ll take Peace any Sunday afternoon, but he better keep his hands off of my Friday mornings. I imagine 12-year-old Jesus had just as many skinned knees as the rest of us and He was still the definition of Holy.

 

Our blood was a company issued bottle full of vitalyte water, because if the Lord’s blood is going to bring you forgiveness, it might as well bring you electrolytes too. “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you and for many in forgiveness of sins”. I thought back to the grape juice I would guzzle back in a church that had walls and all I could think was that Jesus’s blood probably wasn’t that dark. He was probably malnourished, with blood wanting for iron and sugar and anything not the color of the dust he walked. I like to think our barely tinted orange vitalyte water reminded Him more of Himself than that grape juice ever did. It certainly reminded me of Him more. At the end of a long hike or run or climb, when I’m sweaty and tired and scraped up and yearning for rest, vitalyte water will provide me with a layer of restoration far thicker than purple sugar-water ever could. I could tell the hands that gave it to me understood how much more sensible it is to use a plastic water bottle instead of a chalice, they understood how important each ounce of weight is, they understood that Jesus probably walked more than we did and that he understood the importance of weight too. If I am going to carry a salvation with me into the afterlife, I hope it’s a salvation that doesn’t force me to my knees, that’s a stance no one should ever have no choice in. A man I met in the Canyon once told me that the holiest of rivers is the one quenching his thirst. In that same way, I think we found that the holiest of communions wasn’t the wine or grape juice bought by the church’s kitchen committee, it was the sacrifice of vitalyte powder, a potion that has literally saved lives in the Canyon, a potion that allowed us to keep on sweating and breathing and walking.

 

Regardless of the lack of propriety our body and blood may have had, the people that passed that cup around the circle are the kind of people you want holding your hands all the way through this life and then as pallbearers when you enter the next. They were the kind of people who would laugh in your face when you tried to pull the “but look at all of my sins” card, they would laugh in your face and then stick that card right in a shredder and say “this ain’t texas hold ‘em so stop trying to hold onto them and just let go”. I suppose we all did a whole lot of letting go. Or at least started to. Doubt fear loneliness parents broken bodies broken brains resentment shame perception sadness lust loathing mistakes self destruction, you name it, we had it. We entered that circle at the start of the summer carrying a whole lot of shit and, I don’t know about everyone else, but by the time we left I felt a whole lot lighter.

 

I don’t know why that communion was the first communion that actually gave me some sense of relief. In one word it was Holy. And it was equal. There was no man standing in front of me acting as a mediator between my sin and God. There was only us, equals, and that brought God out of his tall, unreachable throne and put Him barefoot, in the dirt with the rest of us.

 

I’ve been reading Mark 7 a lot this week. Verses 14 and 15 say this:

 

“14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

 

We talked a lot this summer about how our church leaders don’t really support us listening to Kendrick Lamar and how us girls were always told to put more clothes on and how we felt heretical when we admitted to liking beer. We found solidarity in our feelings of “bad Christian” because the things we liked didn’t fit with what we are told is good. I wrote all my sermons with a beer sitting on the rim next to me and I know that elixir helped me relax enough to stop thinking that I am only filled with bad things and I should not put my femininity in front of a congregation, and to actually come up with words of Peace and Truth. I am not ashamed to say that I shared some really good messages this summer. That is not the bad kind of pride. Kendrick talks more about racism on one album than entire churches do in a year so I will be proud of my ‘bad’ habit of cracking open a cold one with the boys – The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.

 

A lot of good things came out of us this summer. I rescued a girl from the woods. We prayed over a suicidal coworker. We sang worship songs at people hiking into The Void. It is my belief that God cares a lot more about what comes out of our lives than what goes into our bodies. It is my belief that Jesus wouldn’t hesitate when it came to using a swear word if it gets his point across. It is my belief that The Church places too much emphasis on what we look like doing something than the thing we are actually doing.

 

I want to do Good things. I want to have people in my life who aren’t afraid to challenge the tradition of man. I want to find absolution in the shape of a Nalgene water bottle and a bag of trail mix. And maybe this is heretical and I am just a wild eyed temptress who will never find salvation because it stays seated on a church pew, but John the Baptist drew closer to God than ever before by wearing camel hair, eating locusts, and running around the desert. Something tells me there weren’t many steeples full of plastic wafers out there.

Lessons the Color of Dust and Rain

How do I explain why we are here? From day one the Canyon seemed expansive. Expansive and rude and entirely too uninviting to really belong to those principles with any intent other than throwing us off his scent. In the morning the sun rolls across lungs such a deep shade of blue you would think he hadn’t taken a breath all night long. The yellow hues that smudge around those deepened edges make you believe that hope is the color of the clouds found halfway between 5 and 6 AM. I hope you always wake up for that canvas without the help of an alarm.

When I saw him, I knew that God is real, she said. She said with glistening eyes and a voice dripping with the knowledge of what it is like to feel as empty and dry as this Canyon. This Canyon will save so many, so many, so many who walk around like they carry their own tombstones strapped to their backs. There is freedom in closed eyes and gusts of wind and just too close to the edge and choosing only to look forward instead of down. You’ve got a whole lot of forward coming at you and I guarantee it will knock you flat off your feet onto the softest rock you’ve ever felt in your life. It’s okay if you want to lie there, sleeping, forever.

Have you ever been so alone your own voice startled you? Have you ever heard your questions echo off walls of limestone, coming back to you two shades lighter than you expected, and that’s how you knew that this is the place you leave your molting shell behind? Come out from that cave you’ve been hiding in, your skin needn’t be so tough anymore. You’ve got hieroglyphic sonnets written behind your eyes just waiting to be read.

Wear that dust like Cleopatra wore her mascara, boast your wild mane like the Trembling Giant boasts it’s branches, keep your boots loose enough for your toes to wiggle, and know that the eyes of the Colorado River weep 18,700 cubic meters of feeling per second. You are not weak for leaving tracks of salt down your beautiful, sun-worn face. God made cacti and rattlesnakes with just as much pride as He made tulips and butterflies, some are meant to be threatening before they are loved, you are loved even when you are not whole.

It’s an uphill battle.

It’s an uphill walk.

It’s an uphill dance.

Every time you ascend his folds of rocky soul remember that you are defying the boundaries of physics they trapped you in when they coined the word “gravity”. The only gravity worth listening to is the pull of one human hand to another. Let love be love, let love be your Shoshone sunset, let love be the water spigot after that 7-mile desert stretch. The deeper you go the better it gets.

Don’t be afraid to be the sandstorm that rages against the niceties of commercialized happiness. If you’re going to be alive, you might as well be rim-to-rim alive. You might as well be call-NPS-if-I’m-not-back-in-two-days alive. You might as well be watercolors and guitar strings and stolen breakfasts and inside jokes alive. Doubt is not the end of the trail, it is just a compass and a cairn and a moment of panic and proving that you know how to navigate the rockslides of this life.

You are you; complicated violet beautiful you. And this Canyon is a stray bullet. Be you even when he pierces you through and through. Be you even when he strikes you right through the heart. Only in total abandon will you find that peace you are looking for. I think it looks a lot like an afternoon storm. We always sleep better when it’s raining, don’t we?