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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Thin Ridge of Pain

Saturday, I stood at 10064 ft with the high planes desert falling away to my right and the basin of LA receding beneath a blanket of clouds to the left. We were hiking the Baldy Bowl Trail, a path that follows the crest of Mount Baldy and is little more than two feet wide at times.
Did I take a moment to revel in the glory of God's creation and the beauty of the human body? I hear you ask.
-Yes, I spent most of the time reflecting on the accute burning in my lungs and the wonder of a dizzy head.
Did I, while I was up on that beautiful hike, take time to commune with nature and contemplate my place in the universe?
-Yes, I waited doggedly with every bend in that blasted trail to discover how far we had gone, and with each searing jolt in my knees, where the trail would end!
Or did I, after finishing the 8.2 mile hike, take time to think about human nature and the depths of the human psyche?
-Yes! I marvelled at the ability of pain to reduce me to nothing more than a spoiled 13 year-old girl, with a propensity toward whining and sulking.

I wish I could tell you how hiking Mt. Baldy, that stoney, brilliant mountain, brought out an inner strength. But the truth is it broke me. It made me ugly, and I resented it for that. At one point, I was on my haunches crying, tears pouring down my face, while Dwayne stood pulling at my arm, trying to encourage me on. While I was genuinely in pain, I can't reconcile the way that pain made me react.

This is how bad I was: sometimes, I'd fall behind trying to go at my own pace and stay fresh. But when I got tired anyway, and lonely -- I pouted. I'd look at the other three chattering away, pushing ahead cheerfully, and feel miserable about my own miserable state. Then I'd fall even more behind, pulling that all famous junior high move to see if anyone would notice I was gone.

At other times, when I heard the guys calling the other girl a "superstar" and a "powerhouse" for keeping up, I'd suddenly barrel past all of them in a petty attempt to show off.

Ah, so mature. So full of grace and dignity that Christin. She handles herself well, yes?

And finally, after moving past sulking, then petty competitiveness, I resorted to pure aggression. Enraged by the pain that would not go away, I did what any desperate girl will do, I attacked -- my husband.

"I'm weaker than you!" I retorted in the truck on the way home. "I'm not as athletic!" "Why couldn't we have done a nice 4 mile hike across a meadow?!" "You just don't care about me!"

To be fair, and only a little fair to myself, I should mention that 3/4 of the way through the hike, Dwayne discovered my pack was even heavier than his. When he took it off my shoulders to carry it for me, I felt suddenly lighter. My steps didn't hurt as much.

In addition, I hadn't prepared very well for the hike. The extent of my warm-up was twisting in a swivel chair and moving six paces to the copy machine. So I wasn't in shape for a gruesome task like Mt. Baldy. It was probably too much for my body, but that doesn't leave me any less conflicted today. While the adolescent as retreated back to her cave, her memory still burns, like a bright light on the retina, and I'm left with a residue of embarrassment, dare I even say "shame."

That I haven't outgrown her, that she still exists, shocks me. Her breath feels sticky inside me. It took so little to bring her out full-force, undistilled, and sweaty. This leaves me with a sinking feeling. I'm not who I thought I was, entirely. I haven't gained as much depth in these last 12 years as I thought.

This past Sunday, Erwin McManus said, "People don't change, but God changes people."
All week I've been haunted by that 13 year-old girl and the knowledge that she hides behind a very thin veil. I've been working through this realization slowly and thoughtfully, because I don't want to be mistaken about who I am or what my nature is truly.

"That's so morbid," you say. "Why do you want to depress yourself?"

It's not a matter of depression. Not even a matter of self-deprication. Now that she's shown herself, I want to pull that girl out, and look her in the face. I want to see her clearly, because seeing her does a strange thing: it makes me grateful. It makes the grace that works inside me everyday sharp and close, like the razor edge of a mountain's crest.

We are two separate things, this grace and I, but somehow held together, moving and reaching, bumping up against one another. The moment I forget how close I am to ugliness, is the moment I loose my place on the mountain. I forget where I am, the pain in my feet, the heat in my head, the truth of being cleansed. But if I can stay honest, if I can remember there is no vast basin between me and myself, just a thin ridge of pain, then I feel accutely, with overwhelming gratitude, the force that works within me, purifying everday that which the earth of my body can not get rid of itself.

(Photo by Dave Chapman, taken from

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Non Sequitur

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Why Can't I Submit?

Submit my writing that is. (My husband has a story all his own:-)

Submitting haunts me like the homework I know I should do, like the dirty apartment I just can't bring myself to start cleaning. I walk in the door, I look around, and I know that if I just put the magazines in the basket, if I just put the shoes in the closet, the apartment will be clean in no time. But to face the small task of submitting overwhelms me to the point of paralysis.

There's no good reason for it. It's not like it's a ton of work. The piece is already written, rewritten, and edited. The envelpe is already laying on my desk waiting for an address. The entry fee is already taken care of. All I need to do is simply print the story up, address the envelope, and send it off. So why oh why do I find everything else under the sun to do, like posting on my blog?!

This weekend I was walking with some friends. We were in the Crestline Mountians, north of San Bernadino, sucking in the gorgeous Fall air. Even there, the topic of submission managed to wind itself up the mountain and attack. A friend said, "You need to start submitting."
I said, "I know." And stepped on quietly, feeling the sticky breath of submission breathing down my neck. I have driven home today with that icky feeling that I'm avoiding something important.

What is this perversion? Why I can't I bring myself to it? I think about a college friend who worked tirelessly at submitting her work through out school. Spending money like it was a full-time job, with entry fees and postage. She's going to have a book published by Billy Collins. While I am so excited for her success, it doesn't motivate me as it should. On the contrary, the thought of submitting my work makes a cramp in my chest.

I don't think I can pull any pop psychology from this. Like I'm afraid of being rejected, or self-conscious about my work. (I don't think, anyway.) Maybe I need a therapist to read into this too. Why do we have a hard time doing any of the things we really want to do?

I've run from it too long. The weeks of avoiding it have piled up like a mass of crumpled papers, and I can't turn far enough away. That is why, I'm ending this blog right now! I'm going to print the story that is already up in Windows, place it in the big manila envelope sitting at the corner of my eyesight, and mail it off tomorrow.

But first I'm going to revise this post~

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Santa Ana: Patron Saint of Grace and Heat

It's fire season again. When we moved to LA two years ago, a plague of fires broke out across the foothills of Los Angeles. I remember one day stepping out of an Office Depot, my shopping bags in tow, when a man leaning against the wall pointed to the sky with his cigarette and said, "Look." I looked up through the orange smoke which had cloaked LA for several days and made everything, no matter how far away we were from the flames, smell like bon fire. There, hanging like a single burning globe, was the sun -- red and dim from ash.

Wednesday, the first fires of the season broke out in West Hills and Thousand Oaks. A friend who lives in those areas, was evacuated at 3 am. Police rolled through the streets speaking from a megaphone, "This is a mandatory evacuation." Our friend drove 45 miles South to our apartment and slept in his car until he saw the lights go on in our apartment. While his neighborhood wasn't on fire, he chose to stay with us one more night. He could see the flames licking up the hills, and the dark gritty smoke burgeoning. "The wind could change," he explained.

The wind he's talking about is a season phenomena all it's own here in LA. It's called the Santa Ana Wind which visits LA every October with a dry oppressive heat that evaporates moisture. Joan Didion writes about it best in her essay "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

"California...devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at a 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously."

The science behind the Santa Ana wind goes something like this: it begins in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, six hours northeast of Los Angeles. When high pressure systems build in the altitudes of the Great Basin and low pressure systems deepen over Mexico the air spills over the mountain ridge, like a levee breeched, and begins to roll toward the lowlands of Southern California. As the desert air falls it gets heavier and drier, hitting the foothills and basin of LA like a mountain sized blow-dryer. This is the hottest season of the year. This is when you go to sleep at night with the thinnest slip of sheet. This is the season when the curtains hang like lead against an open window when the winds are not whipping. This is the season when bodies are too hot to touch.

The Santa Ana's. That's what we call them. Named for the Santa Ana canyon. But many southern Californians believe that the original name was santanas, meaning devil winds, similar to the Spanish word for "Satan." It would make sense: heat and dry, the torture of a wind that should refresh and relieve, but instead lights the land on fire.

There is another meaning for the name Santa Ana. She is the patron saint of women in labor and miners. Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, grandmother of Jesus. And in her name lies "gracious one" and "grace."

The Santa Ana winds which comes upon us with heat and fire, carry with them damnation and hell, salvation and grace. They whip up fires which purge the hills and leave the earth black. They strip us of our homes, and vegetation, leaving nothing behind but memory, and the purity of space. We know we are human. We remember that we die with out water, here in the desert, that we have created a man-made oasis in LA.

After all, the desert has a beauty -- a severe beauty. One which grabs us and makes us survive. One which pushes and steals and forces us to conquer or be conquered. Southern California has let us win. The city of Lost Angeles has defied her barren face, and has become a valley of swirling angels. But every now and then the desert sends Santa Ana, who descends in a gust of saintly robes. She reminds us where we live, who's body we have plunged and cultivated life.