Hillock not the Tree

Deathstar asked me, as only a best friend and teacher can — “I’m wondering what lessons you learned or are learning from all of this.”

The strange thing about my own life unfurling is that I suddenly look back upon these decades of experience — the last two in particular where I feel I at least had begun to work consciously on my own heart, often failing, but beginning to awaken. I can barely recall now the young girl I was — so frozen in my own body and mind really — my entire family recalls my cautious nature from toddlerhood — wary. Ever wary. Searching. Watching. Assessing.

I wrote yesterday about Sylvia Earle, or “her deepness” — the nickname she earned after her solo walk on the sea floor.

credit:Bates Littlehales © 2008 National Geographic.

credit:Bates Littlehales © 2008 National Geographic.

If you search for it in the show archives you’ll find this description: The pioneering oceanographer and explorer describes walking on the ocean floor under a quarter-mile of water where light can scarcely reach.

I couldn’t shake the image of the darkness and the pressure — that Earle describes with incredible wonder and eloquence.


I spent the first few decades of my life feeling as if I were underwater — barely breathing, surrounding by pressures and currents I didn’t fully understand except to know they were dangerous. It’s only now that I feel myself to be surfacing, only now that I have learned to breathe — and even now I forget.

As a young woman — in college — I was so desperate to feel loved and safe that it colored everything else. None of my life’s work could begin, really begin, until I felt that — and I didn’t feel that until G and I began dating. I was thirty-one. That desperate search for home would have looked for a while like autonomy — heading into the backcountry alone, taking near strangers up on motorcycle rides through the Bitteroot, hitch-hiking in a land of tumble-down barns and broad rivers, driving long stints into the mountains commuting to the tribal college where I worked — 45 minutes on a two-lane highway with blind curves and logging trucks. My other job was in the University town going from school to school teaching poetry to children — many of them in desperate places. I remember a child writing a poem once about his father shooting his pet – not because it was sick or because they couldn’t afford veterinary care but as a punishment. I saw them, knew them, recognized something in them — the children who had to sit so close to me when I was reading — as if warming themselves by a fire — the ones with rings of dirt around their necks and hair untrimmed with long raggedy cuffs. I was in my late twenties and it would be in those years that I realized I had it all turned around — that writing wouldn’t save me, a novel wouldn’t save me, whatever misplaced notion of literary fame I’d concocted wouldn’t even save me — but having a family just might.

What I’ve learned. When Alicia died I had a moment that I’ve had periodically over the years of everything stripped bare. A place that words couldn’t reach. A sense of “this is all there is.”

If words are worth anything its in their ability to tether us to one another. We live in a time where, for much of the world technology has allowed us to believe that words are cheap — we are throwing our voices out into the chasm — a flood of words, a clamor, a din. I realized that I wanted to measure my words.


I learned that we are insignificant. The world doesn’t stop. Our workspaces where we once buzzed along — an indispensible part of a team — pause for the briefest of moments — right now birds are still gaining wobbly purchase on the dogwood, hopping beneath the juniper — the new sod rolled out like carpet over the earth uprooted by the loss of our old pine — a lush green island that a new couple someday will look out to and know nothing of the tree that once stood there — just the hillock.

Of course those who’ve loved and known us best — our mark on them is indelible — the places where we’ve walked hard along the earth.


Trite I guess. This moment is all there is. There is nothing that will make us happier — no amount of things or accolades — no number on a scale — and that the irreplaceable are those who, for some mysterious reason of chemistry and time and luck, we’ve chosen to stand bare in front of — and they’ve held our hearts.

2 responses

  1. This is not trite. Not at all. It’s beautiful and true.

    Did I ever tell you my parents lived in the Bitterroot Valley for 5 years (98-2003)? And my brother went to University of Montana undergrad (Texas State, though, for his MFA)? He writes almost exclusively about Montana. Beautiful but treacherous place…

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