leaning over the river


one of the courses i’m taking is ‘southwest literature and film’. my reading list includes local and regional writers including the poet jimmy santiago baca. we received our reading list months ago and i am happy (and shocked!) to admit i actually did most of the reading ahead of time. perhaps i turned a new page in my scholastic patterns where i leave procrastination behind? we shall see.

i read baca’s poetry first, then his autobiography. both are gripping. his story is an amazing story of brokenness and redemption. i highly, highly recommend all of his poetry and his autobiography: A Place to Stand.  read them together. at our welcome dinner tonight they announced he will come for a reading of his work. i heard this might happen, but when it came official, i got tears in my eyes! i am so excited! ok, so i had tears in my eyes a lot as they explained all of the courses (i wish i could take them ALL…well, except the gothic and chaucer ones). plus all of the opportunities to learn outside of the classroom: lunchtime discussion groups on classroom strategies, To Kill a Mockingbird, film viewings, traditional fiesta dances, repairing old churches with adobe mud… on and on and on…

back to baca.

he writes a lot about nature, particularly the rio grande river. nature is healing to him. this resonates with me. personally, one aspect of nature i love is it’s healing beauty, but also it’s uncontrollable power. nature is soothing but also terrifying. sometimes putting me at ease means putting me in my place.

one of my most terrifying encounters with nature was a snowshoeing trek in colorado. i told no one where i was hiking. i went alone up to 12,000 feet in an avalanche warning area. at the start there were tracks of previous snowshoers and i ran into two women on their way down, spoke with them for a moment, and proceeded upward.  here is a picture of the trailhead:

the tracks stopped well before the summit.  i continued. i walked past an avalanche warning sign and realised i had absolutely no gear to use nor knowledge of how to survive in these conditions. i did not care. in my mind i had come too far to turn around.

some people do reckless things in their teens. i saved them for my twenties.

the wind became fierce. i’m guessing 30 mph sustained and up to 50-60 mph gusts. i kept walking even though there was no trail. eventually i could see the summit. there was a lake at the top. i wanted so badly to make it to the top to see the frozen lake. there was no path to get there, just a 50 foot hillside covered in snow.

i made it about 20 feet up the hillside. the wind blew so hard i literally could not take a step forward. the snow felt very deep but very unsteady under my feet. the top layer was crunchy with ice and i felt like a sheet could break off easily, sending a cascade of underlying powder (and me) down the mountain. i stood there for a moment encapsulated by fear. i knew i could not go any further. i took this picture:

i have yet to experience another moment of utter beauty and complete terror so taoistically bound.

“click,” said the camera….then i hauled my little ass down the mountain.

when i was a kid i used to feed the horses at night. in the early darkness of winter nights, i let into my mind the idea someone was hiding in the barn waiting to get me. i would run as fast as i could from the barn to the house. i hated when we left the horses out because it meant i had to stop to chain the gate. but if we left them up, i could sprint right through. i knew i looked ridiculous.

high tailing it down this colorado mountain, i think i looked about the same. looks aside, i’m certain fear feels the same whether you are eleven or twenty seven.

on our adventures around new mexico last week, julie and i took a great drive along the mighty rio grande. we wound along its banks for a few miles and came upon a very old wooden bridge. i slammed on the breaks and pulled the car off the shoulder. the bridge was condemned, sagging and plastered with warning and no trespassing signs.

naturally, it becokoned me.

i saw what i think was a fox scamper across the length of the bridge. i tiptoed out a little ways and could hear the creaking of the old wood, which was at least beautiful if not stable.  i went back to the edge. i thought about it for a moment. i judged the situation and gave julie my camera.  i’ve heard it said you should do something each day that terrifies you. i decided this would be the event of the day.

the wood creaked and the river roared underneath my feet.

beauty and terror.

peace and fear.

infinite and finite.

i don’t regret it for a second.

now back to baca.

this poem is one of my favorites of his and comes to mind as i think about my walk across the river:

This Day
I feel foolish,
     like those silly robins jumping on the ditch boughs
     when I run by them.
            Those robins do not have the grand style of the red tailed hawk,
            no design, no dream, just robins acting stupid.
They've never smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey, consumed drugs
as I have.
            In their mindless
            fluttering about
            filled with nonsense,
                 they tell me how they
                       love the Great Spirit,
            scold me not to be self-pitying,
            to open my life
            and make this day a bough on a tree
            leaning over infinity, where eternity flows forward
            and with day the river runs
                       carrying all that falls in it.
            Be happy Jimmy, they chirp,
            Jimmy, be silly, make this day a tree
            leaning over the river eternity
            and fuss about in its branches.

so, i’m hoping to make this summer a tree.

the truth is, the life i lead is eternal. there is time to open it up to my fears and my joys, to be happy and silly…

which is why i need to go to sleep pronto so i can wake up for the traditional first day of class 530 am sunrise hike led by our loco (local) alfredo!

go read baca. you won’t regret it.


3 Responses to “leaning over the river”

  1. ghiatt said

    I loved everything about this post–except that you are a Chaucer hater.

  2. Carol said

    Your scarey adventures gives me a pit in stomach…oye…love reading about your adventures especially since you are safe and sound..:) Enjoy your first day…

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