You Can Die Trying
I woke up sobbing this month. From a dream. Not little tears. Not whimpers. Great gasps and wails.
In the dream I am in an ancient ritual, and then everything goes quiet. I close my eyes and I hear the forest — birds, insects, trees, wind. My body is replete with the wilderness. The scene shifts with a force. The forest is dying. The wild is becoming a wasteland. I keen myself awake.
I have screamed, grunted, snored, shouted, swore and spit in a dream. I have never before cried there.
I rarely cry. I stopped crying when my husband incurred an anoxic insult that altered his brain. He cries over all kinds of things now, usually with joy, often over stories of other people. When we were writing a memoir about our experience after the trauma, he cried every time he read his pieces aloud. He is a physical therapist, and he cries at the end of the day when he tells me stories about the people he helps to walk and run and play again after their debilitating injuries. He cries when one of his children does something wonderful. The more tender he becomes, the less I want to cry. Instead, I toughen up. I write sitting in my kitchen, staring at an old cedar that sways and sheds in the winter storms. I feel like her, gnarled but not broken.
This stoic strength makes my wailing dream even stranger. Why am I crying in my sleep when I mostly don’t during the day? Am I walling myself off from despair? Am I trying not to feel this decay of the wild things?
A friend introduces me to some new people at a coffee tasting. The others, all men as it turns out, offer wise critique of the presentation, the grinds, the music, the flavor, the barista. I can tell you what one man’s lips look like when he suppresses a smile. I can say how each man held a gaze. I can show you how their legs looked under the table when they were relaxed, and how their hands moved when they were speaking. I can’t remember what we talked about, or even much about why I was there. I can tell you every emotion that swayed me, and how I imagined what they were feeling. This has been the way of it since I was a little girl. Often I can’t look at people while I am talking because I am sensing their gaze and gestures and body so intensely that I lose language.
I talk with one man about drinking coffee in Italy — the stand-up gelato shops, the art and conversation of the caffe. We stand smiling at each other, thinking of our private memories of travel. I like to think that if I was going to hang out for a few hours with this potential new friend, I might tell him that I cried in my dream. I imagine that I am just that forthcoming, that I can risk not caring what he thinks, that I can risk seeming insipid, or puerile, or pathetic. The truth is, I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding saying essential things. As a Southerner, a Catholic schoolgirl, a public relations professional, a fundraiser, I am practiced at knowing what to say to please people. Turns out, it takes a lot of effort to be phony.
In the last decade, I’ve been getting better at doing and saying what I want. I’ve started to write some things down I’ve never told anyone before. I don’t do this to fix things, or to be known, or to trade in secrets. I say things now because it feels like something is getting worked out through me. Some mystery. Perhaps some knowing will speak and I will memorize its gestures and turn that magic onto a page where it will be preserved.
A few days before I have the crying dream, my uncle dies. When I tell my friend Wendy, she says, “Sorry about your Uncle Boonie. You’re lucky to have had one.” And I know what she means. There was only one possible. There he was, and then he was gone. He was my father’s brother, and he consoled me at my dad’s funeral by having a long conversation about life and how we know so little about what we will be given here. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I do recall how he spoke downwards, into my right shoulder, his eyes barely rising to meet mine, so unshowily humble, that my daughter, who was trying to take a picture of us, had to wait a good ten minutes for him to raise his head. I’m sad that I was not able to go to his funeral, and that I didn’t take the time to record his stories, and that I haven’t spent much time with an entire generation of Kentucky farmers that is passing by. I’ve lost kin and friends, yet when Boonie dies something else drops away that I never expected.
I keep thinking I can preserve a life. And it isn’t possible.
My husband’s brain injury took his memories and altered his personality. I am grateful to be with the same long legs and sweet smile and generous nature that I remember, even though the rest of him left. I wrote my way out of my grief for what was lost, wrote some essays and a book, and filled journals and letters with my disbelief and rage. I chronicled our lives in a similar way Boonie and the family harvested and stripped tobacco, with the daily industriousness of the work of the season, my back bent over the words, time chasing a recollection that turns out, like smoke, to be transient and unimportant. All along, the eventual miracle had been happening elsewhere, the miracle of finding yourself in love with a new person in the body of a lover you once knew.
The forest is like that lover.
When I go out into the wilderness, I experience the same erotic pleasure as I do with a lover. There is no sensual difference between rolling around in the leaves and rolling with a human body. I have had orgiastic delight in trees and over rocks and against the wind and inside the sea and under the sun. For several years it has been my practice to go into the forest at least once a month, and to leave the city entirely for a month every summer. This is how I stay sane, I tell friends. The forest woos me, and I adore it in return.
And I have erred in thinking that the forest is mine. That because the forest is a beloved, that it will not be altered. This refusal occurs despite the apparent reality of climate change and wildfires and insect outbreaks and human plunder. Until the intrusion of despair into my waking state, I imagined the forest was always going to be there when I wanted it. I imagine that the wilderness is protected because so many people happily enjoy it.
The forest death of my dream isn’t like an uncle dying from being well-used, or a husband’s identity dying in a flash. It isn’t even like a natural cycle of wilderness decay. No, this is an unnatural winter. The trees have been breathing our human share of carbon dioxide, absorbing our use of cars and trucks. Trees, those carbon sponges, have been doing more than their share. We depend upon the forest for our very livelihood. Now the trees are in peril, many of the forests are releasing gas back into the environment, speeding up climate change. With growing economic problems around the globe, there are scarce resources to buy restitution of the North American forests wiped out by pine beetles, or the Amazonian forests destroyed by weather, or deforestation for agriculture in Brazil, or the explosive fires in the American Southwest, or the death of a Siberian forest the size of Pennsylvania.
‘So what can I do?,’ I might have said before the dream. Destruction is the way of things here. I can preserve nothing. Not one life.
And yet, I can keen myself awake. I can work for climate legislation. I can give part of my income to preservation efforts. I can measure our family’s fossil fuel use. I can make the necessary changes. I can ask my friends to join me. I can love the beauty and communion while witnessing the reality. I can stop pretending the earth will remain as I wish. In the unknowing of any being’s death, I can risk being with.
Truth: You can’t save anything. Not really. We’re on a planet careening towards a red giant.* We will die, sooner or later; our bodies will change form; our memories will leave. Thinking that we’re some body with an inside self and an outside world might even slip away (exposing the peace – or whatever— that is at the heart of us.)
Dare: You can die trying.
I’ve been trying to preserve things since I was a child, imagining I could keep myself safe if I can understand the rules here. In some imaginary future, I might please people or piss them off. How would I ever get that ‘right’? They would only be praising or condemning their story about me anyway. The rules are false because they suggest I need something more than this. Or that what works for you to connect with your world will also work for me. In dropping the desire to protect myself, I open myself to tears, to others, to the wild that is not separate.
*Thanks to Benjamin Smythe for this and other insights.
Image: iStock, Pine beetles, as a result of climate change, destroy Rockies forests.