Tuesday, December 28, 2010

KPH


I've noticed an unsettling thing about the world. No matter where you go, everyone ignores the speed limits.

I guess they aren't ignored, strictly speaking. After all, one must know how fast they're allowed to go in order to go faster than that particular figure.

Buzzing around on the back roads through the rolling, curving hinterlands of rural New Zealand, it occurred to me to wonder why the buzz of "fast" superimposed itself over the sensual delight of sliding through the landscape in the warm summertime air. I couldn't stop it, though -- couldn't turn off the compulsion to mash on the gas and feel the growl of metal, air and fire coming through my foot.

Fast is like sugar. Fast is like alcohol. Fast is like music, played so loud that it unbearably tickles your eardrums before bursting them. Fast is so, so good -- but you always need more. And more isn't always better.

I've always been so damned bad at slowing down. I like warp-speed movement -- warp-speed satisfaction -- warp-speed change. This makes me an abominable meditator...but an Olympic-caliber transformation artist.

I'm done transforming. I want to cultivate a better crop of slowness for the next chapter.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

kitchen witch


While the powdery New Zealand rain dusts the lawn outside, I'm learning to cream butter and sugar with my hands. You laugh when I call it "percussive dairy massage," pulling and twisting and feeling the cat's-tongue roughness of the mixture as it enters and leaves my fists.

I've always loved to bake, but I'd always been sensually subtracted from this part of the process, letting my stand mixer churn mechanically through the dough. Now, I'm literally up to my elbows in meltingly soft sweetness -- there are fifty guests to feed tonight, and everyone's going to want a handful of lavender-and-rosepetal shortbread hearts.

This kitchen rings with happiness. I believe this to be so because Anusara, the chef, is beyond description.

She's the MorrĂ­gan, all fire and birth and mystery. She has borne no less than eight children. She could easily be my mother, in fact, but she could just as easily be my sister. She is of the forest, and the wind, and the moon, and all of these speak to her in languages the rest of us have forgotten. She never comes out and says that she practices magick, in as many words, because it doesn't need the saying; if you're with her, you're eating what she has made for you, and so you're deep in her magick already.

To say Anusara is a cook is like saying Guernica is a poster. I've never been so transported by food in my life. What she does is deeply spiritual, and profound, and molecular. Without Anusara in the kitchen, it's a very nice and well-appointed industrial kitchen; with her, it's a temple.

I've rolled and plied a hundred shortbread hearts from this boulder of swooningly scented dough and baked them to blondeness in the oven. Inexplicably, I find myself weaving an open-centered tower of cookies in the middle of a wide, flat charger. When I've finished, I look up -- and there she is, waiting with a fistful of roses for the edible vase. She's smiling a secret smile; I'm sure she compelled me to build it for her. We laugh.

As I watch Anusara float around the shortbreads, fluttering lavender petals and icing sugar over the cookies and the roses like a tiny snowfall, I think about how lucky we are to share this space with her -- and how much I have yet to learn about food, power, wisdom and womanhood.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

mana


In the Maori language, "Mana" means power.

There's something in the earth at the Mana Retreat Centre in Coromandel -- something that makes you not want to wear shoes; to feel every root as it passes underfoot.

The young chef, brought in to pinch-hit for the Druid goddess that usually mans Mana's beautiful old kitchen, hitchhiked from town to get here for her first shift. As we chopped a mountain of leeks, she mentioned to me that the carful of Maori fishermen that picked her up had something peculiar to say about this land. You see, there's a Maori burial ground here. It's not far from the peak of the mountain that crowns at the top of Mana's twisting network of bush trails. The Maori don't come here. It's too holy. It's too powerful. They look up through their eyebrows at the people that do.

Damn right, it's powerful. When we're bouldering at the mountaintop, I can almost feel a heartbeat through the rock under my hands.

We didn't come here for magic. We came for the generous work-trade room and board, for the (more than ample) vegetarian cookery, to learn how to coax armloads of vegetables from pristine soil, for the promise of beauty in the photos on Mana's ancient website. I wanted the physical and spiritual space to expand my yoga practice.

We got magic.

We got tarot cards so incisive that it stings to read them aloud. We got a forest that listens, and watches, and whispers. We got a tidal estuary that breathes sunshine. We got a hilltop sanctuary that erases time when you sing inside it. We got a psychic belltower. We got a space so full of nymphs, spirits, gods and ancestors that they almost crowd the space.

The Maori were right. Being here is to take a risk -- the risk that living in a space this charged, day in and day out, will change the very root of you.

I'll embrace that risk.

Friday, November 19, 2010

waves


The bay spreads wide in front of us, its surface reflecting the mercurial silver of the clouds.

A row of toothy cliffs hem the bay, each stretching volcanic claws out into the open water. Our safety-orange kayaks skirt the frothy border of their domain. The seabirds watch us dolefully as they circle overhead, occasionally punctuating the surface with a perfect spearhead dive.

As soft as I'm feeling these days, I'm surprised at the power my arms are putting into each stroke of the paddle. Kayaking quiets the mind in a backwards way: by playing havoc with the idea of accomplishment. Objects that seemed unreachably far appear suddenly close; a beach that seemed imminent drifts unfathomably away. Once you're in the rhythm of it, you necessarily abandon your attachment to the goal. You'll make it there. Just keep paddling.

I hear your paddle catch the water behind me. I turn to see you, and the off-beat strike of the paddle sends up a small splash. The drops that land on my lips taste like blood.

We lie back in our respective boats, cradled in the plastic well, knees resting on either side. Viewed from overhead, we'd look like pinned butterflies, framed in orange on silver satin.

We talk about the sense of responsibility we have to our beloved forms of expression--flying, either with wings or through curvy canyons--and the logistics of constant movement--and our responsibilities to our families and our livelihoods and our continued exploration. We talk about the unrelenting drive to be better, smarter, stronger, cleverer. To learn more languages, dances, airsports, motorcycles, martial arts and authors. We talk about the pace we've set. We strategize.

There's an acrobatic plane overhead. Its occasional loops dig tufts of cloud from the gathering thunderheads and pull them, thread-candylike, into the open air. The storm's coming.

As I watch you dig your paddle into the water as you turn towards shore, I wonder what's beneath the mirrored surface.

we will be victorious


I'm wedged between a bulkhead and a pile of backpacks. Under us, the makeshift bed in the back of this sketchy van conversion rattles between plastic panels.

We're careening through the mountains around the turns of a forest road. I'm alternately holding myself up with a seatbelt mooring and balancing my weight against your knee, depending on which side of the van we're being thrown towards. This has to be the most thrilling, nauseating way to see New Zealand's Coromandel.

As my shins smash against the doorjamb on a particularly sharp right-hander, I have to smile at my good luck.

The driver and passenger speak Israeli in low tones. They adjust the volume of the Muse album that rattles through the van's ancient speakers. The sound comes in waves.

This is the second time in our lives we've hitchhiked. The second time, as a matter of fact, we've hitchhiked this week.

The first time, I made it clear I wanted no part of it. I clearly understood the necessity--the bus had been missed, and our shoulders had been buried in bags and skydiving acoutrements. There were no more busses leaving that day. We had somewhere to be. A taxi was possible, but obscenely expensive. That left one thing on offer: the kindness of strangers. I hate being that vulnerable.

I watched your thumb make several tentative arcs against the horizon before I stretched mine out to join it. It wasn't long before we were loading our bags into a strange trunk, explaining ourselves to a strange couple, and feeling less and less strange about the enterprise.

Now, your hand knitted in mine, we're watching the landscape slide alongside. Focused on the foreground, the fern-dotted forest and rolling fields of grazing sheep become raking brushstrokes in varying shades of green.

In those first jaw-gritting moments, you told me we'd be glad we scored a ride; that we'd tell each other it was a win, after we'd mustered the courage to stick a thumb out and put it to the fates.

You were, of course, right.

You always are.

Monday, September 06, 2010

up the coast


I.

Lima.

It's San-Francisco cold here, and an impenetrable shroud of cloudcover dampens the city's voice. The brilliant paint jobs on the surrounding skyscrapers have to fight through the silky, diffuse sunlight.

This is a classy, classy city. It's as fashionable as New York, with the insouciant sex appeal of Barcelona. It's crowded with beauty salons and art galleries and cafes, and the coastline ribbons under a miles-long section of soarable cliffs.

Ghetto asked a young businessman about his iPhone in the bar last night, expressing his curiosity regarding the ease of hopping on the network. He received nothing back but a curt retort--"I have a career here." Yes, of course. We're aware. We're asking about your phone service, buddy, because we have a career here too.

We won't be here long. The idea was to rest our wings here for a moment--besides, the fog is beginning to collect in my lungs.

II.

Mancora, one 22-hour bus ride later.

I was mugged yesterday afternoon!

OK. I suppose it's not a mugging if the guy ends up running from you in terror and you stand over your ripped purse in the middle of the dusty street, flipping him the bird and laughing at him while he high-tails it back to his mototaxi full of surprised friends.

Still, the experience was more of a victory than hey-look-I-kept-my-stuff. It was much the same feeling as my first parachute malfunction--a big pile of line twists that sent me spinning rapidly down through my available altitude as I kicked like hell to untwist myself.

I think of it this way: anyone who travels constantly and has a comfort zone that extends beyond the Mariott lobby is eventually going to have a crime perpetrated upon them, just as anyone who flies a canopy is going to have a malfunction at some point. These are statistical certainties. In this case as well as the relatively common spinning malfunction, I got lucky--a slash-and-grab is not generally a situation in which you're in serious danger of physical harm. You just have to act--quickly, effeciently, and correctly--and you'll come out of it OK.

In this case, I was walking with Ghetto in the dirt-road neighborhoods of Mancora with my fabric purse slung across my body. I didn't hear him coming. The moment I felt the tug, though, I was a writhing, kicking, punching hellion. He wrestled with the bag for a moment, but it sealed the deal when he saw all six-feet-seven of Ghetto coming after him.

We've been reviewing the incident in conversation pretty constantly since it happened: the things we shouldn't have done (walk straight from the ATM into the dirt-road neighborhoods off the main street), the things we did right (carry a nearly empty purse, slung across the body; choose shaming over full-on pulverization, which we were certainly capable of), and the things that would have been fun to do (kick him, a lot, in delicate places; yell, "Suck it, Pezweon!" as he retreated).

It's actually rather amazing that I made it this long without someone having a go at my person and/or possessions, considering the scope of the places I've traveled and for how long. The not-quite-mugging, known henceforth as "The Mancora TukTuk Guy Incident," is a great piece of experiential information to carry forward. I'm certainly grateful for the loss of that cumbersome bit of innocence.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

storm


I.

The jagged mountains gnaw the bottoms of the galloping clouds, ripping them into tufts as they pour, panting and spent, into the valley. The wind comes in most nights like a howling drunk, throwing things down the street and beating the windsocks senseless.

The sky burns and weeps and stews, and the pilots below send fervent prayers that she will never be too peaceful.

II.

This place is as bland and suburban as any bland, suburban street could ever aspire to be. It's all trimmed lawns and immaculate topiaries. It's tricycles and soccer fields and mid-sized SUV's.

And then there's The Point.

The Point extends a claw into the river of wind that flows down the valley. It stirs turbulence. It sends air careening skyward, throwing up a wall of lift that thousands of people strap on a nylon wing and hurl themselves into. It's a gate to heaven. It's poetry. It's irresistible.

Gates are interesting places.

I see the sly-eyed lycanthropes that live here. I smell their hunger. I hear the live wires snapping in their depths. Others see their freedom; others see them fly. I see their anger. I see them them taunt the stones below.

I hear the stories of their hunts. I see them circle each other. I see them take their prey.

Little lamb, how did you not see the wolves? And why do you yet offer yourself to those teeth, now that you know their sharpness?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

holds and exits


I.

I just set down Steph Davis's book - 'High Infatuation' - after devouring it in just two sessions. Steph is a full-time, sponsored, professional rock climber. A friend lent me the book on spec, so I read it without knowing much about Steph; as I read, I was struck by the covalences between her experience and mine. She was raised in an academic setting, coming to her sport later than the people around her. She's vegan. Her adventures are dissimilar, but her approach is not. Even if I never meet her (which is, considering her proximity in the six-degrees scale, unlikely), I'm grateful for the quiet sense of not-entirely-aloneness that gives me.

There are lots of stories about Yosemite in the book. Having spent a couple of weeks there in the recent past, earning my Wilderness First Responder certification in the damp bower of a northern-California winter, it made me think a lot about the place.

Yosemite is two worlds, and they exist at perpendicular angles. There's the flat world, with its theme-park circle of road that runs along the edges and the uniformed tour directors that move the ever-flowing stream of families along mile-and-a-half nature walks. The flat world is a place of exacting regulation and martial law; of crowded camps and constant enforcement presence and sluggish rental minivans.

Steph's world is the other world - the vertical world. Parents wrangling disinterested children along the endlessly trodden trails in the flatlands don't see it: the swan-bodies that dash off into the void above, the crack of a canopy echoing like a slap against the cliff. The symphony of hundreds of hands sliding at once, curling, tightening, rubbing oil and sweat into scores of curving routes as they snake up to the sky. They don't hear the furtive joy of the jumpers landing in the meadow, nor do they see the climbers die on the wall in the hard first storms of October. They stay steady, heel and ball of foot anchored to the dirt of the valley floor.

Cooing over 4x6 photos of their weekend flirtation with nature, they might not see the tiny dots suspended in the sky or hanging, pumped and terrified, from the wall.

II.

And here am I.

I nuzzle a foot down onto a hold, the resin catching the rubber of my rock shoe. My mind empties of everything but the color of the route I climb and the mechanics of moving up - green, left toe, thigh, green, right hand, pinch, push, green, wrap, stretch. There's a faith in this work; it's not the same faith that fills my leg muscles at the door of the plane, or the faith that turns me around to face the edge and run under a wing. There's no explosiveness to it.

As my hands strengthen and my mind sharpens around the moves of these projects, I hope my heart does the same. I hope to find a space beyond my mortification at my clumsy newness; beyond my obsessive compulsion to magically match the skill of my talented and experienced compatriots; beyond my egoistic desire to be Amazing. I hope to find a place where I can leave my ego sitting dejected on a ledge behind me as my soul travels slowly up or flies ecstatically away, an uncrowded passenger in my body.

I push with my right leg, reach with my left fingers, brush the bar that the toprope curls around. It's a little better every day.

Friday, March 26, 2010

vertical


I.

Y'know what?

This is WORKING.

I've been reading voraciously, preparing, hashing and rehashing spreadsheets and checklists and blogrolls. I've been ideating circles around this for years - so much so that I didn't really believe it when I drove the bike up the ramp into the moving truck and polished off the last of the detritus into a final Goodwill run.

That was a month ago - right on schedule, I'm proud to say - and I'm still pinching myself at the dizzying momentum we've gathered.

Here, life is sparklingly written and brilliantly edited. Here, resources are funneled directly into Stuff That Is Awesome, not swallowed by Stuff That Is What It Is. Here, adventure isn't something you have to wait for.

Here, we can fly.

II.

We drove past Hill AFB today on the way to the bridge.

As we swept past the front gate on the 15, I was overwhelmed by tenderness. What if you weren't allowed past the gates of your hometown once you reached the age of consent? What if they took away your right to visit the place you're from? How would you be different?

If I'd been allowed back onto base - any base, because the childrens' poetry that keeps a military family sane is that they're all essentially the same, no matter where they're plunked - I wonder how I'd be different. If I could walk the flightline path, listening to the fighters scratch their way across the sky and the far-off thumping of boots on the parade field, I might still have the part of me that can comfortably place a root.

I might be an easier nut to crack.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

tracks


I'm at the top, subtly tamping my skis into the snow at the cornice to bleed off my nerves.

I peer over again, for the third time. It hasn't gotten any less steep since I looked last - about thirty seconds ago. There's a foreboding line of rocks cupping the outside of the run, like a tongue lying over sharp teeth, and I can't see anything beyond that.

The tips of my skis hang over the maw, peeking down just as I am.

Wow, this is steep.

You're a bit below me, poised with one leg cocked upslope. The way you're smiling, you'd wait there for me for hours. I've never met anyone so patient.

I look down again.

There aren't any nonexpert runs along this ridge. Getting back to the lift would be exhausting and more than a little humiliating. This is gonna be it, and anyway - you're there.

I breathe, and with the sharp inhale I push. I dive after you, transfixed by the consummate ease of your body over the glinting snow.

At the bottom, you're as jubilant as I am. Your blue eyes flash at me from the shade beneath your goggles, and the wideness of your grin is matched by the wideness of this sky, this range, this sparkling ridge, these possibilities. My ribs are cracking with how much I love you.

Happy Valentines' Day, baby.