I am beginning my book.
It was 63 degrees and sunny and so dry that every five minutes I had to take a sip of water to keep my throat from tightening. My lips and throat were moist for only seconds at a time, and then my tongue would begin to scream again. It would feel as if a dust cloud just blew through and desiccated the entire plane. Before it hit my tonsils, I made sure I drank. It was urgent; every five minutes like clockwork, I took a sip. I became a machine.
When I wasn’t holding the canteen, there was nothing in my hands: no straw, no crystal, no unsent or sent text, no paper, no letter, no unfinished plot. I thought nothing of ceremony. I reminded myself to drink every five minutes, the canteen always placed next to my hip: cool and pressing and getting lighter with each swallow. I had nothing to celebrate. I let my body breathe without consumption. I felt my lungs expand without restriction, without analysis, without thinking about the mystery of breath, the mystery of atmosphere, condensation, the way each part works to form the cloud. I accepted my body as a perfect instrument that needed no interference, but some general nourishment, water, and rest. My palms faced down on the cooling ground so I could feel the buzz of the knoll run up my arms, through my elbows and hit my shoulders. My fingers dug past the sparse patches of grass surrounding the exposed roots in the dirt. I smiled without provocation and for no one. My feet were bare, my toenails unpainted and resting on the dry earth. There was no cathartic weeping. There was no unnamed longing. There was no burial or elation. There was no show about any of it. I shivered.
I could feel the tiniest shift in the wind’s direction, the tiniest gust through my hair. These winds froze the land at night, but I had been here before and was prepared. I had a sweater on and a hat somewhere nearby for when the sun finally went down and the desert dropped thirty degrees without warning. The land will teach you once with mercy, and again without it. She is gracious in that way, but to emphasize acceptance, she gets you alone there, and she takes her time with you. It was four pm and I had several more hours before I had to consider the night. I opened my mouth and tilted my head back to relax my jaw which had been clenched shut again. It popped in and out of place all day as I ground my teeth into my gums, but now it breathed with me, open and grateful for the change in pace. Mouth gaping, I leaned against the trunk slowly, letting my spine adjust to the slightly uneven support; the little extra digs from where the bark protruded, and folded my hands in my lap.
I was alone with my mind and yet, there was no preoccupation with occupying it. My head felt spacious: no racing delusions, no hourglass turning, no second thought, second guess, second regret. I could feel my whole body. I was my whole body. In front of me laid just trees; just a field of grass on a small hill and then an endless grove of turquoise and pine and a spackle of sorrel and burnt orange. The sky was blue; bright blue. The southwest had the kind of sky that inspired nurseries painted by eager, over-indulgent parents who wouldn’t dream of anything less than opulent for their male newborn. There I was, surrounded by untainted opulence and not trying to name a swatch after it, or prove that we both were here, that I had ever even been here before. No one would be inspired by this moment because no one would ever see it. Is this contentment? I thought. The clouds were scattered; thin and snow white, not a rain droplet up there. The sun was bright and coming from a direction I was not facing. It was 63 degrees and I felt it. I heard no animal. As far as I could see, there were no roads or people or even brooks running through this small sanctuary. There were only trees and whispers of breezes, a small boulder in the short distance that something could perch on, a bird or a small ground animal, for a rest, but that was it. I imagined nothing.
My mind did not fight to distort the image into being not about me or about me or about us or about anything. My mind relaxed with my jaw. My jaw relaxed with my elbows, now folded. My arms relaxed with my toes, now resting on top of the ground. The only movement was the shifting wind. My stomach did not rumble. My tongue was set in place, not lolling about, only slightly sandy. My body was not on display for anyone. There was not a single unsatiated need in my life at the moment. How soon would it be, or how long did I have before the budding inquisition began? And how long from there before the questions got stuck in my throat so I would only think and not say? So I would distort and submit to each distortion? How long did I have here before I lost my eyesight, before I could not see the trees for what they were; indifferent yet supportive? Before I tried to pick out the perfect song about it, tried to pick out the perfect word for this fleeting inception of nothing coming together at once? Where I would dissect every intersection I had crossed to get here today at the foot of the only yellow cottonwood on the hill at the beginning of autumn in the middle of the high desert at the first sharp cold breeze of the day. My heart jumped.
“God, what do I owe you for my liberty?” I spoke out loud.
I felt my body swell, uncaged, and grasping what I could never say, what I could never hear, what I could never embody. I conflated freedom with perfect living amends. I conflated happiness with exaggerated euphoria. I conflated trust with control. I had never been content or contemplated the meaning of the words I spoke when I tried to describe my emotions. I was a dagger. I wore my words like a dagger demanding space and taking everything from others. I agreed with these distortions and stayed stagnant, caged. The air was still. My jaw began to clench. My fingers began to wander to my bag to pull out a straw. My toes began to wiggle. I knew what was next—the story would soon begin.
But God provides obstruction for the self obsessed; obstacles to keep us present, keep us moving forward. It provides problems to solve so you can use that investigative piece of your brain as needed, and sit and mend nothing as solutions naturally evolve, but you feel involved. You feel good about it. And perhaps God just wanted to show me that I am always beholden, always handcuffed to my own desire for divination. I am always trying to dehumanize myself for the sake of relaxation, for the sake of “rising above.” God wanted to humanize me; teach me that existence is divine. Or maybe God was trying to be a mirror so I could see my ridiculous demands on the world produced the world’s ridiculous demands of me. Or was that me to me? I think God just wanted me to understand grace in seconds, then minutes, then hours of moments, until you live in it. Until you are graceful. Until you are swallowed by it and you become someone people say is filled with grace. They say oh she is so graceful and they invite you to their parties and they mean it when they say they are happy you came. Until you no longer beg, plead or make a single demand. Until you are grateful to have nothing to mend. Until you are grateful you have anything at all.
God replied as God does, without warning and in a way that no one will ever believe or trust that it really happened that way. It doesn’t even have to be remarkable for people not to believe you. People just don’t believe you heard things correctly or saw things correctly or understood things the way they were designed to be understood. Most of all, no one believes a dreamer. Perhaps I just don’t trust. I heard a snap of a twig or a scratch on an object or something that made noise with its appearance and turned my head just as soon as I heard it. Standing on top of that boulder where only a bird or small animal may perch, I saw a full grown coyote. Lizard dangling from his mouth, I caught him watching me. Bated, I watched him back. We held each other’s gaze before he hopped off the rock without effort and sauntered west. He stopped after a few feet, turned around to watch me with complete assurance like killers do, and I watched the defeated reptile swing lifelessly with him. In that moment, I felt compassion for the whole forest; the entire game. I didn’t have time to go into it. I moved not at all. I inhaled and held it. He sensed my subordination from the distance and continued on into an opening in the trees we had both stalked our way through. Without missing a beat a sudden chorus from another direction. Near, but not too close, I heard a howl: long and billowing and announcing. Within seconds, a return howl just as urgent, and within half a second another return howl, and then another until there was a victorious cacophony surrounding me. Dozens of howls, nothing but howls; no sound of a highway or a phone going off or a song blaring from a radio. What does pulsing blood smell like? My heart raced with presumption.
Sarah… ticking time whispered, stay a wild animal.
If I had anything left besides a dry tongue and no love of want, it was instinct. I leaned back against the tree and listened to the last dog’s response subside and the woods quickly return to dead silence. No animal would move right now. No bird would chirp. No bird would dare be that mocking. I shuffled not at all. It was 4:08 pm and 62 degrees and I felt it. The sky was bright blue. The clouds had shifted so none were in sight. The sun was bright and coming from behind me. My feet were bare and on the ground. My hands were clutching blades of grass. My heart was racing. My breathing was paced. My jaw was clenched. God makes pacts with predators. God provides the prey. If there is no prey to be found, God makes way for the long hunt, and we, in complete unison with its’ will, make way for the hunters and for the hunted to be caught. What we do in between and where we fall on that spectrum is entirely up to us. That is liberty. We will each have a death, yes, that is inevitable.We will also be responsible for a death. One, at the very least, which is our own. Some of us will be responsible for many. We owe God only that.
As I faced my woods, and I began to see them, I remembered my definition of a successful life was just one moment of complete contentment, complete presence, a feeling of being emptied. One moment of total reality that I did not imagine or showcase. With the grace of God, I had that, and I had it surrounded by the kind of sky that pinned women long for, would pay for. Some would kill for it. They like it so much they paint their whole house when they are done with the nursery. Do you like green-winged teal or blue-winged teal? they ask their unresponsive partners. Aware of his cutting disinterest, his biding time, she suddenly comes down with macabre so they go with burgundy. They redo the awning, the siding, the trim. Their baby grows as the house does: sterile, color coordinated, locked away to be untouched by the sun, and always at the whim of the mood of the couple. They consider themselves to be lucky. They were lucky not to be barren, lucky not to be stranded, lucky not to be without things. They think they plotted it. They think they are innocent. They think they owe God nothing but good intent, and certainly are not responsible for any deaths. They feel sorry for me even at this distance.
I put on my hat. I put back on my socks and boots. I took out my buck knife and my locket with my brother’s ashes. Carefully pulling the necklace over my neck so as not to scratch my glasses or break eye contact with the forest, I arched my back hard. I exhaled loudly. I stood up with the knife in my hand. I began my recitations.
“Dear God, thank you for my freedom,” I started as I walked forward.