25 July 2010

Nothing to the Mountain

I recently watched a movie called Blindsight about blind American climber and athlete Erik Weihenmayer and an expedition he leads, taking six blind Tibetan teenagers into the Himalaya. I thought it would be an uplifting story, and it was, ultimately – I think I can say that without spoiling the ending. First, though, I had to stomach the Western expedition guides’ (including Weihenmayer’s) testosterone and desire to summit at any cost. They seemed so caught up in the ego of how they would look as humanitarians by taking these blind kids high into the mountains that they seemed to forget the risks they were taking by leading these girls and boys – who had never held ice axes or rappelled before – above 20,000 feet.
The kids were all incredibly endearing in their own ways, and the filmmaker took care to share aspects about each of them and their families. However, it was tough not to look away from the one whose eyeballs lolled about uselessly in sockets, or the one whose eyelids appeared permanently closed, or the one who seemed to be missing an eyeball. It made me uncomfortable on multiple levels.
We Americans don’t often see kids like these. We easily ignore issues that are not broadcast directly into our living rooms – and we also easily ignore some that are. Because we do have so many doctors in America, even kids without insurance typically do not have to endure facial deformities and extreme eye issues. Some benefactor or foundation would feel sorry for American kids with these issues and pay for the corrective surgery. And indeed, kids from other nations are often flown to the U.S. to have surgeries as well, or doctors travel to perform operations for humanitarian organizations. And while I understand that this is a huge gift, I wonder if it is as much for “uncomfortable us” as it is for the kids. We live geographically isolated and geographically insulated, and that affords us many comforts.
It especially wasn’t easy for me to watch this film as the parent of a child who is under the care of a pediatric eye specialist. I wondered if the kids in the movie had ever even seen an eye doctor, much less a pediatric eye specialist. If my child had been born in Tibet, like these kids, she would undoubtedly be blind in one eye at the least, without the benefit of the treatment she’s been working through over the past several years. It isn’t easy to reconcile the guilt of geography or the happenstance of birth.

In Tibet, blindness is seen as a punishment or a jinx. Tiny ancient women passed these blind children in the street and yelled at them, “You deserve to eat your father’s corpse!” One woman claimed that her son was blinded when a serpent cursed him. Another blind boy lamented that he must have done something awful in his past life to deserve being blind in this one, but, he said, “I don’t think I killed anyone.”
I reveal this not because I want you to think that Tibet is a backwards medieval land, but because it shows the limitations placed on these kids in addition to being blind. Being blind in America is a disability, to be sure, but to be blind in an undeveloped country is an ostracizing karmic punishment. These kids are fortunate to attend a school for the blind, but it is the only one of its kind in all of Tibet. It was founded and is run by a blind German woman, Sabriye Tenberken, who created a Braille system in the Tibetan language and ultimately was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

All of her accomplishments and what these kids did in the mountains and with their lives afterwards really got me thinking. It got me thinking about limitations, especially. How we limit others. How we limit our own potential because of our own belief systems. How society’s perspective of what is possible – or not - defines each of us. And how we can transcend all of this and have the potential to do – and actually succeed in doing – great things.
What does it mean to climb a mountain? Not a thing to the mountain. We look up to mountaineers like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay because they had the courage to try something that hadn’t been done before, and they succeeded. But as a lot of tragic mountain stories prove, a good many climbers become so obsessed with summiting that they ignore reason, warning signs, and true danger to themselves and others. A lot of them are reckless and take stupid risks.
So why do we admire them, in spite of their shortcomings? Why would I want to watch a documentary about something as improbable as six blind Tibetan teenagers attempting to climb above 20,000 feet?
It’s the lesson we learn from continuing the journey, even when it becomes difficult, even when we reach what we thought were our own limitations. It’s the sense that even a failed attempt can bring about a renewed sense of purpose, a fresh perception of self-awareness – or even an epiphany that is bigger than the mountain itself. In the end, what it takes to climb a mountain is tenacity. It’s putting one foot in front of the other, again and again, and again. And that’s it. Again and again, over and over. And that was what these six kids and their amazing teacher brought to my mind.
And really, isn’t that how we achieve each of our goals? Isn’t that how we soar beyond our own personal limitations? One step at a time. Again and again and again. Climbing a mountain is just like any other task. One word after another. One Braille character after another. One brushstroke after another. One brick, one stitch, one breath at a time.

17 July 2010


She writes the name of her horse, Florida, on a piece of shingle she found in the wood pile. Then she asks if I can hang the shingle and she shows me two roofing nails she uncovered in the backyard. I retrieve the hammer and follow her to her stable, Horseland.
Horseland is better known as Juniper Park. It stands at the far west end of our driveway. Four behemoth juniper trees anchor four corners and shade an area large enough and open enough to park a car. Branches layered to the ground conceal this haven where, long ago, we placed a sandbox that’s seen little use lately. North of the sandbox, a pile of long yellow grasses awaits Florida. I’d noticed Arden pulling up the grass an hour earlier, after she’d asked if we had any hay. I’d pointed at the yellow grasses bending in the wind on the hillside below the driveway.
She touches a branch that stretches out over the grass. That’s where she wants Florida’s nameplate to hang. Rake and shovel are propped against the trunk of one of the trees, ready to muck out the stable.
A moment later, the shingle hung, she beams.
“Mom, do we have any oats?”
By the end of the week, there are nine more nameplates: Fire, Sage, Rapunzel, Star, Sunflower, Tropical, Jewel, Flora, and Bluebell. As she decides the location of each stall in her stable, she weighs which horse will fit in the space allotted as well as each individual horse’s personality. Fire needs to be separate, as he can be a bit unpredictable – after all, he is part dragon and can breathe fire. Star is tiny and fits under the low branches defining her stall. I stifle a laugh as Arden sighs and mutters, “I guess I can pretend that Bluebell will fit there,” in a tangle of branches that is that only remaining unoccupied space.

I love that my work schedule and my daughters’ school schedule coincide and that we get more than two months together every summer. Two months to do a lot of nothing if we choose. When I chose teaching as my career, I never really considered the riches it would offer me as a parent. We have the luxury of time, which means that I get to sit in the shade of Juniper Park sharing lemonade with my daughters after spending the morning clearing low branches and nailing nameplates. I get to do this without my brain telling me I should be doing something more productive – and I realize the irony, for what could be more productive than encouraging imagination?
The obsession with horses began a while ago, coinciding with the waning of the obsession with unicorns. While Dan and I were in Maui a few weeks ago, the girls stayed with their grandparents. Grandma took them for walks each evening, carrots in hand to feed the neighborhood horses. And so Arden is now determined to own her very own horse. I don’t dare tell her that her chances of having her own horse right now are about as slim as her having her own unicorn.

When I was a child, my family spent a lot of time on the Crown C Ranch in southern Arizona, where we visited people we loved as family and rode horses. We also learned high etiquette for the dinner table (Encarna, the servant, will always serve you from the right – don’t serve yourself while she’s attending to your brother), some of it the hard way (don’t swing your still-too-short legs at the table, or Lhasa, the dog, will bite your toes). It was a magical place to be a child, and we were allowed to roam freely and explore. I shared a cozy, four-poster feather bed with my sister, and read The Wizard of Oz in bed below the light that was attached to the headboard.
But most of my memories there involve a fort my siblings and I created in a dry creek bed in front of the huge ranch house. While I don’t really recall the games we played in the fort, I do remember collecting acorns from the massive oaks that shaded our fort and separating their beret-like caps from the nuts. I remember my brothers kicking me and my sister out of the fort from time to time because we were girls. And I remember when the runoff from a huge thunderstorm raced down the wash and completely cleared away our fort and the toys we’d stashed and buried there.

I have a lot of childhood memories of unstructured time to play, to read, to imagine. I stopped reading only once in my life – after graduating with a degree in English literature I was too burned out to find any pleasure in it. I’d been reading three or four novels a week for my classes – and intensely, mind you, but after a six months hiatus, I began devouring books again. And at some point I stopped playing, thinking I was too cool for childish games. Somewhere, I fear I stopped using my imagination. Or did I?

09 July 2010

Independence Day

you sit on my lap
in a lawn chair that creaks slightly
your long brown hair lifts
with the breeze
tickling my cheek

the last light extinguished
you whisper to me
I’m scared
Why? I ask
you shake your head
it’s not really fear
perhaps anticipation
this unsettling
that you can’t name

sparkling tentacles of light
punctuate the darkness
streak toward us
the crowd gasps
as tracers burn the sky

boom ricochet boom

under our blanket
an echo to that thunder
your heart thumps
and I recall first hearing it
in a sterile room
seven years ago

again you turn and whisper
I’m scared
a little tighter I hold you
I smooth your hair

you curl
burrowing into me
and we breathe together
as veins of light pinprick the dusk

I inhale your dependence
the sweet scent to be carried away
on the breeze so soon

05 July 2010



Home. Love the word. The long ‘o’ stretches itself out, and the ‘m’ lingers a while. It’s that very definable, and yet somehow indefinable, space that is mine, ours. Poets have waxed about home for millennia. Home is where Odysseus fought to arrive, obstacle after obstacle – and after all, there’s no place like home. Just ask Dorothy.

How we each define home is also somewhat dependent on how far from home we travel. And it depends on who asks where home is. If I’m out of the country and asked by a native, home might be defined as something as immense as the United States – an area over three and a half million square miles. A trip out of state, and my home is Arizona, or a city, depending, again, on how much the person asking knows. Familiarity of one another’s space allows us to draw our circle of home as a smaller, more intimate area.

Home is what I miss – and who I miss – while I’m gone. There’s nothing quite like coming back to my own deliciously comfortable bed and my own shower. My neighborhood’s nighttime silence punctuated by yipping coyotes. It’s the familiarity of the route, of knowing where I’m headed. Of hills and horizons recognized. The rhythms and patterns of the day. The routines and rituals of life. The drawing together of hearts whose cadences complement one another. My heart aches a little less with each step retraced toward home.

The colors of home dull with contact. Yet, after a while even the vibrant tropical greens and sapphire blues of Maui made me yearn for the pine greens and granite pinks of home. At the age of twenty, I spent the summer in Paris, living with a French family. I was too enchanted with the city to notice more than a mute ache of homesickness. The lackluster greys and slate blues of Paris are monotonous but unifying – and were so different from my usual world. But after traveling south to Marseille, the scrubby hills surrounding the ancient port astonished me more than the Mediterranean, reminding me of similar colors in the Sonoran Desert.

The times in our lives which are the most difficult are those when the concept of home is not distinct. We float, anchorless, scanning the horizon for a beacon to guide us. These transitions are unsettling because we are literally unsettled. When we are unsure of where home is, little else in our lives is well-defined either.

At some point in our lives, we get to choose our home. To be where we love and with those we love. And while we leave home periodically, by choice or by duty, returning comforts us like nothing else. We navigate our own obstacles on our return: screaming babies in place of Odysseus’s sirens, indifferent baggage handlers rather than the Cyclops, the parking shuttle and traffic instead of the Scylla and Charybdis. For me, the anticipation of returning home at the end of a trip is often more intense than the pre-trip eagerness. As Ludwig Bemelmans put it, the best part of a journey is when the trip is over, and you are home again.