Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Story of a Story

I'm releasing a new “children’s book for grownups” called And: the Story of More. The little book has big story of its own. Here is part of it, written in 2012 when I traveled to Spain and created the images that weave through the parable.

The ampersand progression sketch, 2012

A Dozen Years Ago: Karlsruhe, Germany

            It begins with dust.
            I walk inside the theater. On three large screens, videos of dust play in slow motion: a shaken rug, a vacuum cleaner, a windowsill in sunlight.
            The theater is crowded. In the middle of it sits a man on a stool, playing a banjo and singing a tribute to dust.
            This New Media art installation is the winning entry in an international contest. I’ve worked at the contest venue, a center for art and media technology in Germany, for almost two years. Nothing surprises me any more: concerts of balloon music, surveillance-performance art, a guest artist who shaved his head and then locked himself in a cage for a year, taking photos of himself at the same time every day and then splicing them together in an odd time-lapse of hair growth like some dark, sunless flower.  
            But dust wins?

            Something about that exhibit reached a part of me that I’d hidden beneath too many parties and discussions of philosophy. Easter was approaching, and—as a daughter of not just one but two ordained minsters—I felt the spring pull toward things of the spirit.
            I had been ignoring my spirit for the almost two years I’d been in Germany. The only time I went to church was when I traveled to a new city to see the gothic architecture. I started to need more than flying buttresses.
            One evening, I had a rare twinge of homesickness. I was at my desk in the empty Internet Development office. My lamp cast the only circle of light in the large room. I turned off the song that had been playing on LimeWire all week: something about a girl about to take a fall.
            I dialed home. On the other end of the transatlantic phone call, my parents could guess that I was trying to Figure Things Out. The previous year, they had told me about a kind of theological commune named l’Abri, way up in the Swiss Alps. Other than the scenery, I hadn’t been very interested.
            “Honey, what if we paid for you to go for a week?”
            On second thought.
            I booked my train ticket.
            The night before I left for l’Abri, I had the most visceral dream I’ve experienced in my life—before or since. I was crossing a lush, green hill toward a tree. Without remembering it, I knew I had been cleansed in a way that went beyond any natural cleansing. I felt a purity I didn’t know was possible. As I neared the tree, I saw that it was covered in apples. I picked a perfect, red apple, held it to my heart, and wept for the Fall of Man.
            When I woke, my face was wet with tears. I was entirely surprised. I had never thought about the Fall, other than wishing Adam and Eve hadn’t messed everything up for the rest of us. Though the emotion in the dream seemed misplaced, something in it hinted that I had been lamenting my own fall, too.
            I packed my small backpack and bicycled to the Karlsruhe train station, locking my bike with the hundreds of others. The train came and took me south through the Black Forest. Then it curved around the vineyard-lined rim of Lake Geneva and Château de Chillon. I disembarked at a small town not far from the Lake, where a bus took me up even more curves into a tiny, alpine village that could have been the set for Heidi: dark chalets with red shutters, geraniums in window boxes, cows wearing bells on steep hillsides, the Italian Alps visible beyond St. Bernard Pass. My spirit revived just being away from pixels and pavement.
            When I knocked on the door of Chalet Bellevue, I could see through the single-paned glass down a hallway into a dining room filled with people and late afternoon light. A young man appeared with a smile and opened the door that I later learned one never needed to knock on.
            “Welcome,” he said in English.
            He invited me right in to the communal dinner. I pulled up a chair at the large, oval table and joined a conversation about art, science, and how God wove through all of them. Everyone in the room was around my age. No one wore baggy, brown cardigans or carried a big, black Bible, as I had envisioned. I felt like I had arrived to a youth hostel instead of a theological study center.   
            Over my plate of pasta and glass of water, surrounded by seekers, I felt more alive than I had through two years of ghost-in-the-machine conversations over pints of lager.
            After dinner, a worker named Claudia showed me to one of the girls’ dorm rooms. “It’s movie night, so join us in the chapel down the hill for a screening of Brazil if you like.”
             “Thank you.” I set down my things.
            On top of the scratched dresser I’d been assigned lay a sheet of paper explaining the house rules. Work and study rotations would be posted on the bulletin board in the main hall. Only two showers a week. Only two showers?
            Beneath that paper lay another. It looked like a page of lecture notes with yesterday’s date in the upper-right-hand corner. The notes were discussion questions for the lyrics to a song—the song that had been playing itself with mathematical impossibility at “random” in my office the week before I’d come here.
            I felt the hairs of my spirit lift.
            Then, through the paper-thin chalet walls, I heard a conversation begin in the guys’ room next door: “So, back to last night’s discussion about the Fall of Man.” I stood, rooted to the floor, knowing that I was rooted to something else that I could not see, and I wanted more of it. 
            I stayed for a week, Easter week. It was filled sunshine, forsythia, Image magazine, books on art and faith, painting shutters red, baking bread for forty, lunch discussions on sovereignty. It was a complete and absolute reset to my life.
            When I hitchhiked down the mountain at the end of the week, I didn’t look back because I knew I would return. And I have—many times.
In Between: Everywhere

            During one of those later Swiss seasons, I met a couple while out walking with Claudia, who had become a good friend. She introduced me to the man and woman. We talked. The couple learned that I was a writer and editor. They had a book project underway….I had no idea, there on that sunny Alpside, that I would become their employee and friend. The next autumn, I found myself working for them on the Mediterranean Sea in a quiet corner of Catalonia.
            Northern Europeans travel to this section of the Costa Brava for month-long vacations, eating paella and drinking sangria. I went to help shape a book but found myself being shaped by other things.
            That summer, I had just met someone while home in the States, and my marvelous job in Spain now posed an obstacle to the bigger business of Falling in Love. My head might have been dutifully rearranging chapter four, but my heart was back on a river in Montana. Having no Internet access, I wrote him many letters and mailed them in envelopes made of my painting fragments, croissant wrappers, and even the platter-sized leaf I’d picked to cover my head one day walking home in the sudden rain. We managed occasional phone calls—me in a scratched phone booth at the base of a deserted vacation complex, he on his way to and from work a world away.
            After my months of editing ended, I returned to the States thinking I was returning to the man I would marry. Maybe I should have taken it as a sign that our raft flipped on that river when we met. Two years of relationship passed, filled with more rocks beneath the surface and the undercurrents that pulled us toward them.
            Perhaps to escape—to breathe—I accepted the offer to return to Spain and ghostwrite another book by the same author. There I was in a Spanish déjà vu: same village. Same house. Same paths through wild anise and thyme to the same beaches where the idea of togetherness had hovered above me like a cloud of promise. My heart had carried that battered love back to Spain, perhaps hoping it would return to it’s brighter beginning. The answer? No—spelled the same in English and Catalan.
            When I finished working on the author’s second book and left the Costa Brava, I left the long-distance relationship, too. I had always wanted more from it but knew—no matter how much more I gave—it could never be what either of us needed. I began to learn not to place the burden of my more on any human’s shoulders.
            When I returned to the States, I spent a few spent years confusing my more with what I could do. I nannied, curated a gallery, worked as a personal chef, and then flew off to teach literature and art on an island in Micronesia. When I couldn’t run any further (on a five-by-twelve-mile island, that doesn’t take long to figure out), I went on a three day fast. It was more of a hunger strike, as in: “God, talk to me or else!”
            On the last day of the fast, I lay hungry on the couch and whined: “At least give me one word to take away from this.”
            In golden letters suspended above my head, I saw the word:

            Earlier that week, I had been lamenting with another English teacher about the misuse of the word “trust.” It always bothered me that people told each other just to “Trust.”
            “In what?” I always asked. Trust is a transitive verb; it requires an object. You must trust in something or someone. When I saw the word hanging above my head, I sensed God smiling as if to say: “When I say ‘trust,’ I am the implied object.”
            I smiled back, said, “OK, I’ll trust You,” and went into the kitchen to eat a big bowl of soup.
            Long transition short, I ended up finishing my job on the island and moving to Redding, California to attend the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry. (That is another story altogether.) In my first week there, I heard people call out to God, “More!” I thought: how greedy. I slowly learned: how necessary.
            I only planned on attending the school for a year. But God had more in mind; I stayed for three.
Now: The Costa Brava

            Over a decade has passed since the episode of dust. I have returned here to Catalonia to work on my own book. This time around, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to come back. But I had a little revelation that I couldn’t shake.
            One morning, while having dawn coffee with God, I saw a small line begin to rise up and curve around and around into the shape of an ampersand. I knew it was the shape of more and that it had a story to tell.
            The ampersand was originally a ligature of the two letters forming the Latin word for andet. Over years and scrawls, the letters combined into the & symbol. Add a c to the serving-hand-like end of the ampersand, and you have the symbol for et cetera: and so forth.
            The vision I had of the ampersand began as a path but turned into a river. I knew that the idea wanted to get out of my head and onto the page.
            So now I sit where I have many times before: on an antique, ladder-back chair with a woven seat that gets uncomfortable within an hour. To my left, a window overlooks the Sea in all her moods and colors, in all her dawn-and-dusky glories. In front of me is a whitewashed cement wall where two blue-and-white plates hang.
            I know no one here. I don’t speak the language well enough to carry on conversations. I have nothing to do but work. And so, after unpacking my travelling watercolor set, I sat here and created a small progression study of the vision I’d had. And then I began the individual paintings.
            I am still shaping my idea of more. At the moment, it looks like a path, slowly winding its way through life into the shape of an ampersand. At some points, it doesn’t resemble itself at all, or its colors are muddied. But it is there, ever-weaving through. It is my curvilinear lifeline. I don’t always know which part I’m on. Path? River? Riverpath? Maybe they are the same, just with different colors of time and experience and spirit. Sometimes there are rocks above and below. Sometimes, just sunshine and good visibility.             
            This little book itself only found its path after much back-and-forthing. First I thought it would be a collection of essays and poems. But they could never sort themselves out. Then I realized it wasn’t a collection, but a story, an allegory. And along came the story that is now And: The Story of More. The progression of the ampersand remained constant throughout, waiting for me to figure out what—and who—it wanted along for the journey. The ampersand itself wanted more.
            I think we all want more. We either admit it or we don’t. We either know it is a “more” of intangibles, or we confuse it for something we can touch.
            How to be completely satisfied with what we have and still want more? 
            I sometimes wonder why God created Adam and Eve. Could it be that He wanted more, too?
            O, the things God can do with dust.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Parahawking in the Himalayas

"Preparing to Fly" photo by Siddharth Gupta
Such an adventure to write this photo essay...happy to have it up at the BBC: Soaring over Nepal with threatened vultures. Stunning images by Siddharth Gupta and GoPro shots by Scott Mason of The Parahawking Project.