Wednesday, March 05, 2014




An excerpt from
Defensible Space

By Timothy Anderson

This is an excerpt from a much larger essay of the same title published in 2011. I read this portion of Defensible Space in Santa Fe, NM as part of my graduation exercises associated with obtaining my Masters in Creative Non Fiction from Seattle Pacific University.

Defensible Space is based on true events and is dedicated to my longtime friend,                          Gert McMullen, fairy Godmother to The Names Project~The AIDS Quilt                             

It is also dedicated to the memory of Vincent “Steve” Abyeta whose art is featured above.




~W~

I sit inside the idling semi-truck, a long gleaming Peterbilt hood in front, twin, chromed-exhaust stacks behind. The doors on the trailer are already closed. The last, heavy, cardboard box of folded Name Project quilt panels already off loaded. The truck is parked near the junction of Market Street and Castro, hugging the curb. San Francisco traffic careens around me, without pause. I smell exhaust, and restaurants, and a hint of the sea.

Somehow, I must turn around eighty feet of truck. A load of Salinas Strawberries awaits pick up then I will run them north to Edmonton, Alberta. Northbound, I  haul the gift of California’s nearly year round summer, renewing the weary culinary dreams of the still snowbound. Southbound I’ve just hauled death, symbolized by quilt panels. 

Gert McMullinstands cued on the curb, her long blonde hair flat, her skin and bones, a study in emaciation at war with emancipation. I decide she looks part crazy, appearing more fitting as a stand-in, lead singer for a girl band.  She fearlessly makes eye contact with me, waiting for my nod.  I check my mirrors, looking behind the truck, and when a lull appears, I lift my head.

Reacting to my signal, she steps purposely off the curb, placing her fingers in her mouth, and whistles.  The world stops. Everything is at attention. The noise, shrill, enforces interruption, pauses sidewalk café gossip, parking, ticket officers mid write up, and most importantly, south bound traffic. Blocking all three lanes of Market Street, traffic stops as my airbrakes release with a whoosh, and at the last minute, Gert steps back from my front bumper. I grab a gear, and all 40,000 lbs. of truck groans against the torque of 525 Cummins horsepower.

Gert parts traffic as if she’s Moses, standing within inches of the trailer, it begins to turn around her as if she’s a traffic pylon. Slowly pivoting, the truck catches blinding sunlight and initially blocks only one direction of Market Street.  She tenses, as if awaiting a starting gun, and then, as if on signal, her prey in one direction trapped, she struts parallel with my trailer, to the other side of the arterial.

Now, facing off against three lanes of northbound traffic, her shrill whistling returns. Her pitch of God Awful mourning departing, repeats.  The trailer groans, I “walk” a giant beast in place, turning all 80 feet on a dime, the rear axles spinning around in place as if doing an ice skater’s maneuver, and then, finally, rear axles conclude their pivot.

Gert faces off the motorists standing in the middle lane. Every driver and every pedestrian, on each opposing sidewalk, freeze.  Like a magic barrier to mobility, her raised fist now commands all six lanes of arterial traffic.  Appearing so thin a person could glance right through her, I see the impossibility of one woman standing against huge forces. I see love. I see it isn’t always pretty.

~E~

The quilt, that one brave candle, lights the darkness, like a miracle appearing just after everyone has given up. Marking the final home of dashed hopes, the Names Project Quilt is the way of reckless belief. The quilt stitches together names--taking the form of friends, strangers, and estranged shirt tail relations. Hand sewn, coffin sized panels now travel the nation, becoming historic, a place where the war began--this remembering, this bleeding fabric, rises up for those who stood down. When the quilt rolls into town, citizens weep in mass. 

Gert works all day, every day, for the project. It consumes her. Facing and channeling grief, as if God called just her to dispatch the sorrow of the multitudes. Loss became her resume. She gathers fabric, becoming guardian of tens of thousands of lives.  She is high saint among mourners, and she could not know then, back in the early days, how the pandemic would grow. If she’d known this museum of death would be her home, living under siege, that ten, then twenty, and even thirty years later, the quilt and her attachment to it would represent her legacy, her constant companion, I’ve wondered-- would she still have volunteered to walk this road?
 
A few years ago, while shopping at the Post Falls, Idaho Wal*Mart, I stopped mid stride, startled by her familiar image peering at me from behind the glass protection of a newspaper vending machine.  A headline from the Coeur D’Alene press featured beneath it a photograph of Gert. Still dangerously thin, her features aged and her hair falling haphazardly over her shoulders, the expression peering back at me seemed just as determined, although a bit more exhausted than my last sight of her. The story mentioned the Names Project’s relocation from San Francisco to Atlanta, yet Gert appeared still attached to the project, still following her children, all those quilt panels, into the next chapter of the never ending pandemic.  

~~~

It is 4 a.m.  Gert whirls around me, dancing as if she’s walking on air, lit by strobes, inspired at 134 beats per minute.  Welcome to the Pleasure Dome. We dance, she among the few women allowed, surrounded by shirtless, starry eyed men.  Dawn breaks outside but we remain sweaty in the darkness. The Pleasure Dome is in a forgotten part of town, a foreboding, converted warehouse south of Market reclaiming industrial blight.

My friend Jon is spinning, exalted in the DJ booth. Porn stars man the bars. Water flows from plastic bottles and I close my eyes as a surreal-colored disco light descends from the ceiling.  The light is brilliant, and I welcome this artificial vision of heaven, spinning and rotating amongst us at the most human level. This, the Pleasure Dome, is our interpretation of the celestial, the multi-colored lights, our gay equivalent of the Holy Spirit.  Only upon entering these spaces could light engulf us, transcending our soon to be decimated bodies, while blocking out the already gentrifying industrial reality outside. Gert flitters to my left. She appears and then she is gone, disappearing into a sea of men, all moving, even if only briefly in this moment, at the same heartbeat.  I smell cloves. I smell sweat. For once, I can’t smell fear.
Gert reappears. A sea of flesh parts before her, and her long hair is suspended amongst artificial Technicolor-like-dust. Catching light, she’s backlit with abandon, and energized with the purpose-filled determinism of this briefest allowance of escapism. Gert raises my arms far above her head, then she bends backward, stretching us together, until we are both leaning over, I’m falling into her and she’s suspended beneath me, her eyes wild toward the unknown, and then again, as if by instinct, her entire frame is rising, challenging the night to end, daring dawn as she again releases me.

Just as she’s already released a thousand other loves, only to disappear. I lose sight of her, she’s already moving deeper into the immense warehouse dance floor.  But in my mind, I still see her in that moment, grinning and laughing, daring to push away the infinity of death, disappearing behind perfect muscular, sweaty men, emerging a few songs later, now towing some gorgeous man behind her, already aware that he too will soon be lost to her.  I see her.  I see my friends. In that moment, we flee an ominous reality bearing down on us like a mountain range collapsing against a fragile plain. Thus it was in the beginning. But in that place, oh just for a moment, we could forget. We had the luxury of blindness to our future.  We had yet to remember that time is fleeting, and that we must stitch together most of these names before the disease took us as well. 

~S~

One stitch at a time, a quilt panel is held, sewn, folded, ironed, and released. At the termination of the display, panels are lifted in unison, and folded back into repose. Later Gert and her volunteer army will repair damaged panels. To create a story on fabric, in the shape of a coffin, allows no emotional distance. Touching all this sacred fabric, by hand, by its nature, violates every “personal and professional boundary”. Gert holds them all. Still.

~T~

At the quilt displays, we read the names of the dead. New panels are accepted. Teary-eyed lovers, siblings, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and strangers sheepishly step forward, holding their bundles in hand. Stitched in grief, and worried over.

Was the panel done the way he’d wanted it to be done? This satin, was it the right choice of fabric?

Does the Gold shine as much as she did?

Was that blue the right color? Because you know, he’d know if it wasn’t.  Hadn’t he’d always known the right color?

Maybe, don’t you think, shouldn’t the piece of black leather harness, that ick part of his life, be left out?

Friends gathered.  At the leather bar, the community center, and the county fairgrounds. Motorcyclists, warehouse loaders, and mechanics drink their Bud as they sew. Mothers drink tea. Needles appeared loaded with thread, maybe deciding to include the harness, after all.  Also making the cut, the red hanky, worn on the active left side, finds a home attached to jean fabric.  Maybe the explicit details aren’t too much because they will never be enough to bring him back.
~I~
Eventually, not even the acres of fields surrounding the nation’s Capital Mall can contain our display of lives taken from us too soon. Presidents Regan and Bush I will fly over the display but they will not land among us. Twenty years later, Washington DC will represent one of the most infected cities on the planet.

~L~

My friend Lane and I are traveling 90 miles round trip, from Pend Oreille County to Sandpoint, Idaho, and as we drive through the night to see the movie Milk, I gaze up at stars. I remember the night of Harvey Milk’s assassination. I lay in my bed, violating lights out and curfew, the AM radio antennae propped against the window. I dare and strong arm the signal to come in clear, listening to the shock of radio newscasters, reaching me in Nowhereville, Oregon, via the longshot clear channel radio signal of San Francisco’s KGO.

I still remember static-filled accounts of the riots that follow, the candlelit marches, and just years after that, the seemingly immediate onslaught of AIDS. Cleve Jones, the founder of the Names Project, was among Milk’s best friend. Still-living, he becomes a historical icon. His early activism inspires a supporting character in the film based on the life of Harvey Milk. 

The film will win Oscars, but as Lane and I enter the theater, surrounded by liberal heterosexuals in a former brothel town’s historic Panida Theater, patrons move over a couple seats to give us room.  Or maybe to give them distance from us, the assurance afforded by defensible space.  I remember being the only two guys sitting together. I remember the curious looks.

I’ve met Cleve Jones, I’ve shaken his hand and stood beside him at beer busts to fund the Names Project, held at a Leather Bar, the San Francisco Eagle.  I will volunteer rides in my truck to raise money. Lesbian’s want to know about the engine. Men gaze longingly toward the sleeper. Nearly everyone at that fundraiser is now dead.  The San Francisco Eagle is now closed. Even then, many from those beer busts already knew they were dying.
Tonight, I will remember, as the credits roll at the end of the movie, that gays have always known more tragedy than elation.  That we’ve had too much worry and not enough time to live and that at the same time, we’ve lived too much life, with not enough worry.  Both contradictions remain my reality.

~L~

My friend Steve volunteers at the Names Project.  He is already sick. I stand beside him looking at art he’s created to publicize the first showing of the Quilt in Washington DC.  I am 21 years old, almost 22. He is my mentor, and in my hands, I hold the poster sized image he’s created for that first display on the Capital Mall.  This moment, the Names Project’s Quilt’s unveiling on the National Mall, becomes a starting point of American Dialogue.  We are already several years into the epidemic. President Regan is oblivious.  He does not acknowledge this moment; among historians his lack of attention standing out as the darkest domestic stain on an infamous presidency.

The print I hold, Steve’s art, features six determined subjects, sitting in a half circle. Each of these diverse quilters is portrayed with intensity. A long haired woman sits beside a grandmother and seated on the opposite side, a man in a button down shirt lifts his needle. They sew quilt panels together and even then the Quilt is portrayed falling out, uncontained over the Capital Lawn.

Steve’s art is his looking glass. In each of his subject’s expression, I see love, sadness, loss and hope.  In my friendship with Steve, I feel all of these things as well.
A reproduction of his art, one I’m sure he stole from the project’s sales inventory, still hangs in my hall. He had so little money, an artist so broke he resorts to thievery; stealing his own work.

~~~

“Driver, can I see your log book?”

A good-looking, blonde, Oregon DOT officer is standing at the edge of the Kalamath Falls, Oregon scale platform.  Shining a flashlight into my eyes and peering up at me, the officer steps up onto the cat walk above my fuel tank. Behind me, the refrigerated unit roars, and the tractor engine fan kicks on. I can barely hear him.

I grab my clip board, my log book attached to it and just as I pass it over the window of the truck, handing it to the officer, I realize I’ve filled out the wrong dates. Even worse, I’ve failed to show the required “pre-trip inspection”. The final gut wrenching revelation?  By the look of my comic book, and the previous date, I have perfected time travel.  I stand guilty of being here two days in the future.

The officer holds the flashlight over the paper work and looks up at me quizzically. “Driver, do you realize that…”

I interrupt, already visualizing the massive fine and log book ticket about to bear my name and driver’s license number.  My heart sinks further, as I realize that even if I’d left that morning, logging today’s actual date, there’s no way that I could depart Bellingham and made it to K Falls, legally, in one day. Not only can Officer Robert Redford cite me for falsification of logbook, he can also write me for speeding.

“Officer, I can explain…”

“Park your truck. In front of the scale.  I want to see your permit book, your bill of lading, and, of course, your driver’s license.”  He smiles.  A model quality, giant, evil, handsome-as-hell, you are so mine, love ya mean it and hey, you didn’t need those next three paychecks anyway!
I’ve just made his day.

I park, assemble the paperwork, and walk back toward the scale house, site of my pending execution.  I can’t believe I’m such a dumb ass.

Should I tell him? About the call that I’d always dreaded? The one that had finally come? That my best friend Steve is dying, and that I gave up my vacation, to grab any load I could, and that I’d not slept in 36 hours, but that if I didn’t hustle, Steve would be gone before I made it to the Gay Bay?

I open the door.  The officer sits alone at his desk.  Thankfully, no other drivers are in the scale house.  I hand him my driver’s license.

“So it’s Tim, huh?”

“Yes, officer.”

“You know you’re five hundred pounds over on your driver axles?”

My heart quits.

“Five hundred?”

“Yep.”

I’d just fueled at Mollies Truckstop sitting not 500 feet north of where I’m now detained.  I began to calculate how long it will take to burn off enough fuel to be legal again. Eight pounds per gallon times six miles per gallon…

The officer hands me back the bill of lading: McDonald’s muffin dough from Bellingham, bound for Stockton.  “And according to this…”

“I know.” I interrupt him again. “Officer, I know. I can’t legally be here, even if I had the right day on my log book. But I can explain, I have an emergency. I’m…”

He still has my license. My permit book. He’s looking at me, leaning over the counter, his pen in his hand, a partially filled out citation awaits his completion.  “Go on…”

“I know you’ve probably heard it all. But I swear I’m telling the truth. My best friend is dying, in San Francisco, of AIDS. I got the call early this morning, and I’m just trying to get there. To say goodbye. I don’t know how long he’s got.” 

I’ve just outted myself. I’m sure of it. I feel sick. I’m very much aware that Steve is failing. I am about to have multiple, high-dollar citations, and that long after tonight, I will still have to cross this same scale, several times a week. My life is going to be hell. Marked by a badge happy feast of citations. This scale will stand as a unique memorial to Steve Abeyta and the crashing of my MVR.

The officer watches me, pen suspended, my license held against the top of the stainless steel 
citation clipboard. The same citation book that remains propped open by his other hand.

“I believe you. No driver would admit to a story like yours.”

He begins to write on the citation.  “Tell you what. I’m in a generous mood.  Here’s what we’ll do.  I am going to write one and only one citation up with the wrong infraction number.  All you have to do is request a court date and contest the ticket.  It’ll be thrown out.” 

He points to the place where on the infraction is listed the address of the court. “You’ll have to come down here for a hearing, but that way it’ll stay off your license and it won’t cost you anything. I could cite you for numerous violations.” He makes eye contact. “But I won’t.” I decide I could marry this man of the law.

He pauses still holding my gaze. I fill in the silence with the weakest “Oh Kayyyy…”, kicking myself for sounding like such a dork.

“There’s a catch.”

I swallow.

“You’re going to bed.  I want your butt parked at the rest area south of town.  For a full eight, you got that?” 

I nod.

“I’m not telling you when I shutting this scale down, but when I do, it would be best for your sake, that if I get a hankering, say to patrol south of here, your lights out, getting shut eye in that pickle park.  We do understand each other, right?”

I nod again, salivating over my license, which he still holds. Firmly.

“A full eight hours. I’d hate to call CHP or the Shasta Scale on you because I come bearing warm coffee and you’re awol.”

He hands my license back to me, and quickly finishes the one and only citation. “Now get out of here.”

I take my license and the citation from him. As I turn to open the door, he adds, “And, Tim…I’m sorry about your friend.  Tough times are these.”

~R~

Steve dies. I barely make it to San Francisco in time to lay with him, holding his decimated body in my arms. The Quilt is displayed once more on the Mall without him.
It is now too big to be displayed, anywhere, in its entirety.

~E~

Gert stands in the doorway of The Names Project. We stand beside her watching the animation of the Castro.

A man approaches wearing a plaid shirt and a dirty green baseball hat.  The hat proclaims “Nothing runs like a Deere”. 

My friend Rob taps me on the shoulder, and points me toward him.  “Tim, check it out. Fish. Out of Water.

The man is clearly lost. He keeps looking up at building numbers and turning, as if he’s a sort of misguided human weather vane. He does not return the eye contact of the parade of men on the street who seek his.  Soon enough he is standing at our door, still looking up, verifying the numbers, and looking down at a scrawled address. He seeks out a person in charge, and lucks out, as Gert corrals him. The farmer thrusts a haphazardly folded fabric into her somewhat unexpected arms. She ushers him in, and his eyes dart frantically, surveying the stacks and stacks of Quilt panels. The posters.  The books.  The VCR tapes chronicling the project’s history. Steve’s art.

The volunteers sorting through the chaos are too busy to notice his awkwardness.   The man sees my Peterbilt baseball hat, looks surprised. I wave, sheepishly.

He speaks quietly, but at first only to Gert.  His face is reddened from the sun, and he still has a toothpick dangling out one corner of his mouth. It moves up and down as he speaks. Gert waves me in close, as the man falters. He’s a father. Hails from a dot on a mid-western atlas, and grows grain. He points at the bundle Gert holds, explaining that he’s presenting us this quilt panel. He’d sewn it alone, late at night from a lone, bulb-lit, barn-housed work bench. 

“Don’t know how right that stitch is.”  He points at the middle of the fabric. “I’m no sewer.” 

Gert smiles. “It’s fine.”

“He was a good kid, my son.  Good with the other kids.  Good with the animals.  Maybe not so good with a wrench, but he had try.”  The man swallows.  Composes.  “Don’t know how or when he got it, this . . .” 

The man fights for words, standing alone amongst all these strangers.  I feel his embarrassment lost in the lobby of a big city, fancy place, a place he never thought he’d be standing in.  “I’m not sure if it’s good enough.  But I had to…you know, for him. My boy.”
Gert places the quilt down and begins to unfold it. The man won’t look. He faces away, anywhere but at the panel.  He speaks again. “I almost came to Kansas City, when you were there, but too many people know me in that town.”

He and I again make eye contact. Sizing me up, curious and surprised at a guy like me--my presence, here. Me dressed almost as if I could be jumping out of a Kansas grain truck, running into the Quik Fuel for a cold one in his home town, dumping a load of wheat at the elevator. 

He’s still talking, “I’d first heard ‘bout the quilt on a radio station I sometimes get out of Denver. But I didn’t think I could go through with it, didn’t know what to put on...”
The quilt panel is beautiful.  Our eyes water. The man, very quickly, looks at his creation. Then he looks away.

“I did this between my pay job and farming. His momma had left us before…so I sewed in Wintertime, after shifts at the grain elevator, after harvest slowed up, so I think it’s mostly finished. I think it’s him.  He’s my only kid. Always will be."

Gert is now refolding the panel. No one says anything, and the street noise outside is smothered by the man’s grief.

“I loved him.  Didn’t deserve this.  But, I guess, no one does.”
 
The farmer doesn’t stay long.  He tells me he needs to get back home, before he’s missed by his neighbors. He tells me to stop in sometime, that he’ll buy me coffee. He says he needed to make this last trip with his son. That they’d always talked of California, imagining a place of sun and warmth and beauty.  “I just never thought I would see it alone. Especailly not cuz of this.”

~M~

I meet single mothers, devastated at losing their brightest star.  I meet widowed wives, their spouse already gone, their time also now short.  Sometimes husbands and wives arrive bearing their own panels, created by one for the other, in preparation for what both know lies ahead. Sometimes siblings arrive, acknowledging a death the rest of the family will not. 

“He didn’t die of no cancer.  Wasn’t like that.  Was that other thing that took him.  Mama wouldn’t tell no one.  She wouldn’t take him to no doctor ‘cause she knew before he did.  The night sweats, that’s what it was.  She knew.”

Some people bring finished quilt panels and stay on to volunteer themselves. Most of the volunteers will themselves die.  By volunteering with the quilt, their service eases their own transition or erases a few transgressions they’ve committed. 
Some of my friends will make their own panels. Convinced no one else will.
Others drop off their contributions and never return. Volunteers sometimes die without anyone, estranged and rejected by every member of their family.

Members of the project arrange for their memorials, pass a hat to pay the costs, and will later gather in a coffee shop or bar, and because this is a ritual now, sewing boxes emerge. They take up familiar needles, beautiful threads, and model in real time Steve’s first poster.
This is how we clean our bodies, this is how we bury our dead. This is how we mourn, holed in the back booths of bars, bowling alleys, and other dives.

I learn, after repeated attempts, that stitching a stranger’s life together is not so easily accomplished.  At times, just a name flows across the panel.  Other times, beautiful, colored links emerge, portraying a life shortchanged. I become skilled at marking what I know, the high points of a stranger’s life, by visualizing a quilt panel. How I’d do it--if I only knew how.
I will start a panel for Steve. Once, twice, three times. I buy the fabric, and a woman at Fabricland offers to help, but because I can’t face the depth of his passing, I will never call her.
Fabric unravels, frays, and fades. The panel remains unfinished, haunting me. It has remained this way now over two decades.

At times, some quilters find it difficult to let go of a panel, realizing this just as they enter the Names Project headquarters, that their work now represents a final link to a last shared moment. They are flighty before us, nervously looking around the lobby, the permanence of the street at their back, and suddenly racked by sobs, they ask for additional time. A Kleenex. Or the return of the panel itself. Taking the fabric back.

~E~

In the beginning my dispatcher keeps routing me back to San Francisco.  The Dyke is my shepherd, she Lays me over in the gay bay, tells me there is no freight. She always knew. About the other freight I carried. I find parking for my big truck in the old industrial neighborhoods, the already gentrifying South of Market District, I come farther and farther out of the closet.

I am too young to be so shell shocked.  I am out of the closet but wishing back in it. My beautiful friends dance while they are dying, as if out of a movie scene on the deck of the Titantic.  Even as the ship, our lives, begins to list, and even as reports of horror and grief rise from decks below, I don’t yet see the full-on terror--just replace the four string quartet with a synthesizer and 140 beats per minute; replace the luxury of tuxedoes with sweat, fog machines and laser lightshows. My friends dance until they can’t and then the braver of them return to these, our midnight palaces, sometimes in their wheel chairs, sometimes covered in KS Lesions, and sometimes, they return carried by survivors, in a casket.

My roommate will die while I’m on the road. He dies alone.  He never tells me he is sick.
I have never finished his panel either.

~M~

A woman enters the Names Project building. She seems lost. 

Gert approaches her, “Can I help you?”

The woman holds out home baked cookies.  Looking over Gert’s shoulder, at first, I don’t really know what I am looking at. 

“I thought you might use these for a fund raiser.  Each cookie is an exact replica of a quilt panel.  You could sell ‘em, at the showings.”

Turning away, I don’t want to see whatever comes next. 

“Oh wow.  Thank you.  That is so thoughtful!”  Gert’s voice rises behind me, above the traffic outside. “Did you make these yourself?”

~B~

I lift quilt panel filled boxes into my “refer” trailer, a big refrigeration unit, looking like a metal tumor, looms on the front of the trailer. It is 1991. The boxes of fabric weigh more than some of my recently departed friends.  My trailer is capable of keeping hundreds of bodies cool in a natural disaster. But in this disaster, all the bodies I carry need no cooling. 

~E~

It is a cold December night, after the showing wraps up and the exhibition halls clear. The coldness of the Seattle Washington State Convention Center matches the sterility inside my trailer. Closing the trailer doors, I stand on the ICC bar. I spit on my fingers.  I began to write in the stainless steel doors, against the grime, the dirt, until the stainless steel that my hand traces, is mirrored in shine. My face and the city lights reflect behind me. In big bold letters, the doors of my Semi Trailer spell it all out, messy and dirty, but yet shiny and beautiful.

“Remember their Names.  The Names Project.  Silence Equals Death. This trip is for you, Steve.”
And then I am off, into the night. My CB radio is my constant back up vocalist. Joining the army of trucks rolling southbound for California, I put the gear shift into the last big hole and hit the hammer lane.

All I receive in feedback, via CB channel 17 is a few “10-4’s” to break the silence. 
        
~R~

Epilogue.


In the summer of 2012, in conjunction with the return of the International Conference on AIDS to the United States, the full Names Project Quilt returned to Washington DC. During late July, over 47,000 Quilt Panels saw daylight on the National Mall and throughout Washington DC.  We still remember their names.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Flat Creek Candles


 

Flat Creek Candles

 

“Life is eternal and love is immortal

 and death is only a horizon

and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”

Rossiter W. Raymond

 

I stand at the end of the driveway leading into the Wiley Ranch.

I lean into a bull pine, feeling the bark rub against my jean jacket, feeling the scratchiness of the texture of all that roughness against the Pendleton jacket I rarely wear.  I see my boot prints trailing through the snow and as I look back toward the lighted single-wide mobile home, filling in a small depression of one of the benches that descend ever steeper into the chaos marking the cliffs below, the light spilling out from those Christmas light lit windows beckons warm and bright.  Off to the right, tied in on a barbed wire fence line, Debi Wiley has spelled out the words “Winter Sucks” in joyous Christmas lights.

Fifty feet above me, traffic occasionally pauses on Flat Creek Road, the death trap leading into town, it winding above the ranch and I suspect to encounter that lit-up fence line is as close a revelation of the truest element of surprise. Motorists dynamite their brakes, pause, backing up around the corner, just to snap a picture. From what I understand, the digital image of the jolly spelled out tribute to the suckiness of winter has already traveled the world. 

Yeah, it seems a glaring contradiction.  But if anything defines this place I’ve so grown to love, it is the word, contradiction. This landscape and the people residing here, win me over easily--them who despite everything they face, ruggedly stay. Whether I’m warming up around summer campfires, or stationed at a bar stool in the WhiteBird, I’ve found via quiet conversations, more locals than not seem far more educated in humanity than any academic I’ve rubbed shoulders with.

As I visualize this landscape, by my thinking this place is an assortment of dissimilar features. Things that don’t usually go together, well, here they do. The natural elements appear as if drop-shipped by creation, forming a harmony that would seem unthinkable and forced anywhere else. It’s as if God just couldn’t make up His mind what this place needed to be—sage or forest, foothill or mountain peak, river run through it or water never seen it. A single mile becomes a miracle of rapidity as desert lifts into forest, rock into good soil, elevation becoming a dual testament to the power of exposure and refuge. 

By my reckoning, God, frustrated by His indecision finally just said “Oh Fuck it”.  He threw it all down, all that creation that shouldn’t and don’t normally go together, and He mixed it up.  Before He left, he must have looked back one last time at that hot mess of contradiction, and said, “Damn, I do good—this so works.”

But in this stillness, I also understand that some in these parts sometimes wonder and wander in their despair. They question if maybe after God left, he never came back. Others believe God is always just passing through so fast, He can no longer see this place, know the brokenness of this valley.  Some of my friends have told me they think they might actually hate God for what’s happened.  

I feel this sense tonight on this holy eve, and it becomes yet another contradiction, another set of things that don’t, can’t, and won’t ever add up.  That here in this beauty, ugliness reigns, and that in this perfection, loss is the most familiar chorus of the most of them who’ve stayed on. It is a beautiful crazy, an unresolvable tragedy almost unique to this valley, and maybe, as I look up into the stars, that is why I keep coming back. I return to stand in awe of the high country, to dance in the lowlands, to marvel at the mighty river and to dream of summer in winter and winter in summer. I come back here because no one has any answers as to why God does what He does, and because they don’t have that sacred knowledge, they don’t expect anyone else to either.

Through the window I watch my friends gathered inside the small mobile home’s kitchen and then, for whatever reason, I remain on the perimeter of the light. I turn back to face into the darkness, and as if on cue, I watch as the moon rises over the Selkirk Rocky Mountains to the east. Far below me, rounding China Bend, on the banks of the Columbia River, a freight train labors toward Kettle Falls. I hear the railcars rocking, metal shifting against weight, the engineer’s throttle revving horsepower and then the easing off relief as the tonnage of weight overcomes grade and becomes a slightly different collision of sounds, airbrakes, screeching, and other strains. I listen as the engineer’s horn wails against the perils of an uncontrolled grade crossing and again. within me awakens a love of trains and mountains, echo’s and passages, and here, in all of this I stand on the edge of a dark night filled with both loudness and silences.

The air, oh the air, how sharp it feels with its bite and I respond by pacing my inhalation to match this, the sacredness of a stunning winter’s night, Even as I huddle against the chill, I can see, if not feel, the breaking flashlight invasion of the moon into the darkness, as at first, it struggles against cloud bonds and then breaks free of the entrapment by paint brush inspired cirrus clouds far overhead.

What I can only describe as the sacred holiness of the moment, this one-of-a kind instance, begins to illuminate the valley with moonlight and relief; perspective and vanishing points; and in so much stillness, I can barely remain still.

Now, far below me, a thousand trees free themselves from a forest no longer blanketed in darkness, and that canopy rises distinguished toward freedom.  The forest crown is destined to love on that moon. Overhead stars poke through the heavens. As if this might have been the signal they’d waited for packs of coyotes, on both sides of the river launch into a chorus, beginning first to shrilly yap, then they howl, and in that broken silence, I remain obedient to the stillness of unabashed wonder.

I no longer care that I’m freezing my balls off, that the tears forming around my eyes already seem to be solidifying and as I lean further into that bull pine, not even the pine pitch that threatens to forever stain my jacket, matters. The song of the coyotes changes and then I recognize that the wolves have joined in, and now also, from far, far away, up high on the flanks of the mountains, their howls silence the coyotes. I remember in this moment that night and darkness is central to Christmas, and in the darkness is where we often find the most compelling wonder, and even as I can finally take the cold no more, I pivot in the snow, trudging back toward the warmth and back toward the lights of “Winter Sucks”.

 

~ ~ ~

For some reason I’ve decided that Bo Wiley should drive.

I rarely trust gravity and g forces or God enough to let him drive but tonight, as I take the shotgun seat in my jeep and we blaze away from the comfort of that high perched single-wide, it seems the only truly wise decision I’ve ever made. Bo, without knowing it, is about to take me to a destination I’ve never been even though in truth, I could sketch it blindfolded. And as much as we are on a mission, and as much as I am up for just about anything, what lies ahead still describes a first. Even for me.

The minute we turn off the ranch drive onto Flat Creek Road, snowy and iced over, winding and treacherous, like a roller coaster of unexpected and improbable engineering, I feel Bo become the reliably crazy-sane, recklessly-controlled, closeted, fugitive-on the-run grand-prix, cowboy, racecar, Jeep Driver he should never be.

“Bo!”

“What?” He looks over at me, eyebrows raised, the Iphone still dangling in his lap from where he’s just been searching for yet another Avett Brothers Song, while an additional smart phone, a droid, liea between us. All of this smart technology turning us dumb-behind-the-wheel as we become a rolling hot spot on ice, connecting into a mass of chords and do-hickey attachments, a 4G’d, Wifi’d, bio mass of smart technology morphing us all kinds of stupid, our version of “can you hear me now” inserted into chargers and knobs on my dash that I still can’t understand. I grab the Oh Shit bar, we sail around an iced-over corner, and as I look at my dash, it already appears as if my Jeep is on Life Support. If Bo doesn’t pay attention, soon enough, we may be similarly hooked up.

We fly down what I estimate is a 12% downgrade, make the next corner but I’m not sure if all four wheels are still touching the ground and I wonder if Joni Mitchells “The River” might be a better song selection, as we now hug the same river bank that an hour before, I’d been perched against a tree, looking at least a thousand feet down upon even as I looked up toward the heavens.

“You’re good. It’s what’s up dude. You know I know this road. I once made it to town in…”

“five minutes” I finish his sentence, already well acquainted with his need for speed and my need for the “oh shit bar”, the same handle that at times I wonder might also be large enough to contain other expletives.

Thankfully we make it to Northport without landing in the river.  Along the way we pass the Colville Tribal Cemetery where Bo’s murdered Colville Indian friend David Barr now lies. We pass the Guglelmino’s lower holdings, part of the stunning Bull Hill Guest ranch, and as we cross the Columbia River, only to roll down main street, we pass The Whitebird, home of more drunken brawls than anyone can count and Kuks,’ the oldest continually operating bar (and former legendary whore house) in Washington State.  This place breathes abandonment in the tragic stats of all the closed mines and lumber mills. Yet throughout its rough and tragic and complicated history, I’ve come to know its multiple nuances like some sort of grief etching held up by angels. Here is about crossing over and looking back and breaking badness and struggling to find the good. Here is about mine shafts and wildfires, drunken miracles and sober let downs.

As we turn away from the river, I’m feeling winter full on, seeing the unseen children’s snow angels, left on the Christmas light lit yards—angels who are still somehow holding all of these survivors in a midair embrace, invisibly suspending love on these souls who are caught somewhere between an epic capacity for acceptance and a denial of divine love.  I can’t reconcile the two. Yet I’m not alone in facing such impossible reconciliation. Anyone who’s truly been here, truly known this place stands alongside me in awe that some much loss could happen in a town with so few residents.   

 

~ ~ ~

We stop in Northport and Bo emerges from the Jeep to smoke and take care of business, and I get out to gather my senses, checking to make sure I haven’t pissed myself after the ride into town.  Bo finds me half a block away from the Jeep, finishing up a cell call, and he’s full of questions, checking me out, with “you’re ok right—like Tim, that drive into town was nothing like straight up, my normal bitches be so tripping” and as he bend down to look into my eyes under the cowboy hat brim, and he’s already impatient for me to end the call. “C’mon  dude, for real, we gotta go.”

I know that it’s my last chance at cell service for an hour, and I grudgingly disconnect from the call to land in the bitch seat, the perilous shotgun side. Bo is buckling in and I again confront a massive knot of chords marking the trail of too many gadgets competing for too small a space.  Lorde’s is singing about Royals as we leave town, and I’m thinking no truer song seems to encompass the hopes of this place.  We may die on these treacherous mountain roads, but we will for sure die with the best tunes I Tunes and Youtube can provide.  Like I said, contradiction is my life. I’m getting over it.

The night is dark. Soon our travels lead us out of town, and on this side of the river, the moon has yet to scale the mountains. I can see ridgelines and headlights illuminating dark winding pavement, and again the river is to my right. As we travel toward Williams Lake Cutoff, Bo begins to tackle this idea of God, and somehow reading my mind, for once his driving is calm and reserved. Thank you lord I whisper under my breath.

For the last several weeks, through no intention of our own, we’ve found that Godtalk is a regular part of our dialogue. Whether or not He even exists, or whether or not God’s Give a Damn is Busted. Jesus is also a regular reoccurring character in these animated debates and Bo is not entirely convinced when it comes to belief in any version of a personal Jesus. If there was a cross, he’s not sure if it reveals anything relevant to us in our always going bust towns, our respective families history’s on the verge of ruins.

So how Jesus matters, like to us, is regularly a topic of discussion and for months, I’ve been drawing blanks.  Both of us are dealing with separate murders, the painful realities of addiction, too many unexplained losses, and as much as I’m supposed to be an ordained minister and really believe in all this God stuff, right now I’m also plenty pissed at God.  Twice in the last few months, I’ve faced off against those whose hope is extinguished, who don’t know why they’ve lead good lives only to lose children and grandchildren to violence and accidents and overdoses and they want to know where God went off to when they weren’t looking. I’m not hearing any great conclusive answers to solve any of this shit. I feel dumbfounded and clueless, my faith is fragile, and right now I’ve never hated any human institution more than the church. My responding silence is deafening. The gospel according to shrugging wasn’t how this was supposed to end.

I’m at a point where I’m in full surrender mode. 

“Like really Tim, I still ain’t getting this God stuff. I don’t believe in Jesus.  I mean, yeah ok maybe—possibly, God exists.  But what if He totally hates us?” Bo is looking at me, not at the road. I point ahead. Twice. Reluctantly he looks back toward the highway. “You’re such a granny!” he laughs.

“Look dude, your grandmother drives a hummer. It could be worse. As for God, Bo-- I don’t know. I mean faith is all about questioning. Even though I know all these “What if’s” seem to be a pretty lost place, if you never have to fight for something, never question it, what worth is it right?”

He’s quiet, thinking about this.

“I can’t prove Jesus.  But really, it’s such a-not-human concept. Think about it. Forgiveness? Like when have humans ever embraced that?

He responds. “For real, right! That’s so not what’s up.”

“No man, for us, it’s always been all about the getting even. We want to inflict twice the pain dude. If you look at it like that, the idea of forgiveness is the same as spiritual welfare. Like for real, right? Spiritual entitlement spending!  It’s not spiritual austerity or higher productivity of doing good deeds but it’s really all about getting something you haven’t earned—Grace is something that no matter how damn good you think you are, you can never achieve it.  It’s about faith more than about what you did to deserve grace, and yet we have zero proof, really that grace exists and all these unlimited chances and freedom from religious rulemaking might just be pure horseshit.”

I pause, looking at him, trying to read his reactions. He is going all poker face so I continue, “Still I just have to believe God or Jesus or something beyond our understanding intervened, because these are so not human concepts. This is about being saved from…”

“Save us from?” Bo interrupts and he is driving faster now and I feel like I am speaking in a language I hate, Christian hypocrisy, and I’m thinking I should just shut up. 

Bo is smiling and I look over at him.  “What?”

“Don’t you see the irony?  My family? Your family?  Two opposites, but I don’t know that yours, the Christians wouldn’t so beat mine in a crazy-off.  And your dad is a minister and mine is a logger.”

I imagine the difference responses among my family members in hearing this interpretation of our practical, real-life example of what it means to be a “Christian”—this business of faith-based living.  My mom…my dad…uh, me. It wouldn’t be pretty.  I think we’d definitely win any crazy-off competition with Bo’s family. I’m just being honest.

“Well, being a Christian or believing in God doesn’t save you from being douchebags for one. Remember Harry from the pawn shop in town? He says his worst customers are Christians.  I mean the worst.  Drug dealers keep their word, but the Christians, Oh My God—liars’ thieves, they don’t pay their bills, don’t keep their word. Don’t return his calls.”

“Yeah! What’s up with that?”

Bo signals and we are turning left, up the steep grade that begins Williams Lake Cutoff, and he smiles at me proudly.  “See, I didn’t spin the tires once and I took that corner at way over the suggested limit.” He is again fiddling with his I Phone and we are listening to this song by Carbon Leaf about how love endures, it clings away, when asked to leave, it begs to stay.

I’m nodding to the lyrics, still thinking about Christian douchebags, the most dishonest, pious, self-righteous people I’ve ever met. I feel my stomach tighten. Hating on my faith, hating on the fact that when I try to make excuses for my fellow believers, it all sounds like a secular humanist trying to rationalize the purpose of the lifeboat game and truthfully I’d really like to throw so many of my fellow believers overboard—which makes me just as pious and self-righteous as they are.

I’d told the pawn shop guy a few weeks back that I think I hate the church. He’s been a long standing friend, and we sometimes rub elbows at a non-traditional fellowship gathering. I vented to him that I want nothing to do with organized religion. I don’t feel welcome, I don’t trust Christians and that most of them seem to care more about judging others and condemning guys like me to hell, than feeling their fellow human’s pain.

I realize that all my anger has made me just as judgmental and douche as they are. I’d just gotten in a big Facebook war regarding trickledown theology with a fellow Bible College Grad, a Colorado pastor dude who’d repeatedly made comments about the uselessness of a minimum wage and when I challenged him about the despair of poverty, and that fighting income disparity is a fundamental Christian concern, he threw the grace card at me, which had led to a call from my dad that my responses to him on Facebook had hardly been loving or “Christian”.

More Carbon Leaf lyrics now play over my tripping sound system, something about New Year’s Eve and waking up afraid of the day and that beneath the scars of broken dreams an undone war still rages and stings.

Really? How could it be that the Gospel of Carbon Leaf made hella more sense to me than my faith?

The road is now solid compact snow and ice, and the trees are closing in on us.  I know this road has already taken several people out, loved ones that Bo knows. He tells me the stories of which corners took out these friends, which road took out those, and which grades killed that relative. I already know that nearly everywhere we will drive tonight has a fatality story behind it, and this includes his best friend.  His grandmother Cozy has buried five grandchildren.  His aunt Margaret has lost every child she bore.  And he is driving ten-over-the-posted speed limit, on a solid sheet of ice, and the most amazing thing about any of this, is that right now I don’t give a shit how fast Bo is driving.

~ ~ ~

We are already pulling into the cemetery, the same one perched on the outskirts of Colville Washington. It’s a familiar place, I’ve spent countless moments with my cousin Stacy hiding out here so she can smoke where her kids won’t find out.  She is always telling me that it’s the one place she doesn’t think her father will catch her either, although I have to admit that to choose a cemetery to indulge in a cancer stick addiction is about as delicious an ironic indulgence as I’ve ever encountered.

Still this is a new one for me.  I’ve never been in any cemetery after dark before, much less just after midnight, right before Christmas, right? And, add in that it’s occurring right after it has just snowed a couple inches.  I have no idea how we are supposed to find this particular grave.

Bo seems to know where we are going, and he expertly guides the Jeep down a cemetery lane I can barely make out.  Rounding a corner, he stops, shining the headlights out into the darkness--high beams lit. Mentally I’m rehashing Bo’s mom’s instructions. Remembering that the Candles we carry must last until Christmas Eve, when the family will return.

Bo cuts the engine. “We’re here.  Ready?”

He is already straightening, stretching-out of the 4x4. I take his lead and stiffly step out of my side of the Jeep. The cold is the rudest bitch slap. It immediately takes my breath away and I’m already dreading my next inhale. I’m instantly rethinking whose family really would win any potential crazy-off competition. Right now Bo’s family is back in the lead.

Bo rifles through bags at the back of the Jeep, pulling candles out, grabbing a lighter and then he pulls up the collar on his pencil thin North Face Jacket. “C’mon. It’s just right over here.”

I follow him across the flatness of the newer part of the cemetery.  I know from previous visits with Stacy that one grave off to my right bears a headstone with the inscription “I told you I was sick”. I’m thinking of other such understatements equally applicable now. Yet as I follow my best friend, trudging through the snow, bypassing the depressions marking manicured headstones, down the rows  of this familiar community of loss, it is as if I’ve never been here before.

I don’t know why but I suddenly remember the song by Over the Rhine, “All of My Favorite People are Broken”.  I know it’s on Bo’s Iphone but it hasn’t played on his playlist yet tonight but as I’m thinking about the lyrics, and as I take one cold step after another, the line “It ain’t pretty, but you’re never alone” seems to hold more importance and more appropriateness to my raging thoughts than any line in the song I’ve acknowledged before

I feel a lightness envelope me, as all the anger, all the uncertainty, all the hopeless confusion I’ve felt is released off my shoulders. Another line from the OTR song flows off my lips, “Something’s are better left unspoken, I just want to hold you, let the rest go” and as I mouth the last word, I’m stopped in my tracks.

Bo is kneeling before me in the snow, at the foot of his sister’s, Stevie Jo Wiley’s grave.

~ ~ ~

I’d actually visited Stevie Jo’s grave before, knowing of her legacy years prior to meeting the Wiley’s. I knew that she was killed as a result of a head injury in an industrial accident. That she’d passed at 22 years of age. I knew that she’d been a fierce cowgirl, strong willed and a diehard Mickey Mouse fan. Yet, she also possessed the most remarkable, if not fragile-in-first appearance, beauty. She’d been working with a young colt at the time of her passing, a barrel racing marvel named Buckles, a horse that remains on the Wiley Ranch to this day.

Although I’d encountered Stevie Jo’s grave on many previous summer occasions, pausing before her resting place, as my cousin led me on repeated tours of the cemetery, it didn’t have the same context as it did now. Then, Stacy would be explaining the significance of each resting place, her familiarity with each citizen that we would pause before, they now residing in the cemetery, she now trying to make peace with the pain and anguish of story-after-story. Ones that ether ended way too soon—or, in some cases, not soon enough, but only now, did the totality of what I’d born witness to back then really sink in.

What I hadn’t known, until I actually met Bo, is the tragedy that he was only 15 years old at the time of his sister Stevie Jo’s death.

Now as he’s crouching before me, Bo begins to brush the snow off the roof of a small hut. The simple shelter constructed by his parents to protect their daughter’s resting place from the deep winter cold is revealed as a result of his broad sweeping gestures done with the sleeve of his jacket. Now,  the humble structure appears naked and exposed.

Bo swings open the roof lid. From inside, he removes two extinguished candles, handing the glass remains to me.  Looking over his shoulder, I peer inside.  What I find glistening in the powdered snow and ice crystal magic of that Winter Wonderland would make Walt Disney proud. Plush, stuffed Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse dolls are posted watching guard over Stevie Jo, with Christmas Ornaments and garlands strung up carefully throughout that small space—this entire spirit house adorned in a festive combination of Red and Green. 

Squatting on his heels, Bo takes each new candle, lights it, and places the burning towers within the shelter. He straightens, replaces the lid, and steps back.  The two of us stand there, in the dark, and we watch as the flames begin to melt wax, as new light spreads, and the little memorial now glows.

Removing a cigarette, Bo lights up, taking a long extended drag, the butt end of the cigarette growing fierce and angry and even as he is inhaling deeply while transfixed by the candle’s flames, I see a man frozen in time. He turns his face off to one side to exhale, never removing his gaze from Stevie Jo’s Christmas tribute. 

I try to imagine what might be racing through Bo’s mind—indeed what would race through my mind if this solemn tradition suddenly became incorporated into my Christmas routine. What if, one day I would stand in his shoes, looking at a tribute to my sister?  And although I know we are all already losing someone, just like everyone else, just the force of such a horrific thought physically propels me a step back, away from the shelter. I cannot confront such a ruinous thought.    

Without saying a word, Bo extinguishes his cigarette, and pivots toward the still illuminated headlights of the Jeep.  Turning, I follow quietly behind him. Together we walk slowly, trudging through the powder, returning toward my rig. Our footsteps land over slightly crusted snow, breaking our footfalls before the plunge into the softer crystal powder below, a cushion between the frozen outer crust above and the frozen inner earth beneath. I hear each step breaking through, and I feel each resulting soft landing--and one step becomes another, on this very silent night. For the second time this winter’s eve, I’m reminded of the need to tread lightly, that the surfaces we sometimes traverse are beyond the reach of initial understanding.  Again moisture threatens to freeze my eyes shut and I feel the crusted trail of sorrow marking a path off my cheeks.

I inhale now as deeply as possible. I hold the air and will my lungs to warm it, that it might warm those who have remained behind. I let the measured release of my breath calm my heart even as it forms a brief ghosted fog under the moon.

Repeat.

And even as I trail behind Bo, following him in the darkness, blind into the brightness of the high beams, I see his 6’4” frame casting a long shadow on both sides of me. The splitting of his shadow, moving like twin guardians over the flatness of the cemetery affords me a sort of sheltering in motion, locked in the midst of his silhouette, stretching out in a “v” on both sides of me. I identify the strangest sense really, an embrace of light over darkness, and hope over despair, the movement of our moving-on, overcoming the stillness of being stuck in grief.  

Bo opens the door of the Jeep, and the dome light inside shatters the image, but as I hold my door handle open, I feel as if this visual will always be with me, sheltering me in motion, throughout the rest of my days.

I reclaim my place in the suicidal shotgun seat, and buckle-in. Bo places the used candles onto the back seat.  Neither of us have any need to utter a word.  Bo turns the ignition key, engages the clutch, gently easing the rig into first gear.  Slowly, we idle our way out, creating fresh tire tracks in the snow, tracing the outlines of the small road leading to the cemetery exit. 

I look up and beyond the cemetery, toward the foothills, the sky, and search for the outlier of wherever heaven rests. We exit the cemetery, turning right, back toward the edge of that troubled town where we have lit as a beacon on this one foothill, one acknowledging the impossible power of hope, memory and love. Love’s will endures. When asked to leave, it begs to stay, and allowing all of this, a slow burn takes the form of candles.  Those little flickering flames, a man-made combination of wicks and melting wax, really-- just two tall narrow glasses. How powerful the audacity of those candles, and what somehow they enable to illuminate beyond their assumed scope. The possibility that light could overtake that sea of darkness, winning over the complete gloom that we’d encountered upon our arrival, that two small flames could accomplish such a massive feat had never occurred to me.

Indeed, those two small candles seemed to actually empower the snow, the sky, and in response, against such a powerful stand, the blackness retreated to the extended corners of the cemetery. And in that moment, I saw the impossibility of faith and the possibility it might also enable. That the tiniest belief empowers the smallest flickers of all the other little flames dancing off wicks, and that when we are open to it, we join together as one light fighting against the darkness. The light declines our losses and dignifies our crushed dreams. I’ve been trying to make sense of so many conflicting and ugly emotions over the last several months, but in this moment the candles victory over the darkness seemed to suggest a staggering untapped power.

Could it be that even the simple light of the weakest doubter’s faith has power—a faith that lies rooted in the illogical hope that something beyond us still exists, holds us close, sends us joy and reassurance, even when it doesn’t exactly answer our questions, or solve our disputes, or end the agony of our losses? 

If those two little candles could not only light Stevie Jo’s resting place, while also lighting all the surrounding wreaths and the little Christmas Trees placed on other graves, they if nothing else also became an unlikely multiplier. An equation so strong in its simplicity, maybe one could never explain it nor quantify its power. I realize in that moment, as I stare out the window, that maybe I am not meant to answer questions. That just being in the presence of grief, standing with others in their darkest moments and letting them stand beside me during mine, might reassure us all, that all is not lost.

I recline back into my seat, and picture Stevie Jo, and I can hear the Christmas Carol All is Well in my mind. I offer a silent thanks to her and wish her peace on her journey. Somehow in the craziness of lighting her grave, she’d illuminated my own darkness. I felt as if I’d just experienced my own Christmas, pardon the cliché, miracle--that in remembering her on this night, it felt as if she’d stood alive in the present, confronting me against my determined and self-imposed resistance.

I’m amazed in this, my encounter with belief, that it manifests itself in such a visual way. Where minutes before, I’d stood in a once darkened place, a section of real estate where the soil can barely contain all the buried pain—that then minutes later two small candles provide a sense of transformation where unlikely light will love on the earth, flickering from within that little shelter, with Mickey and Minnie Mouse on guard keeping watch over the night. Yet although Stevie is already gone 15 years, her presence holds steadfast to the infinity of memories set lovingly on a frozen and impenetrable earth. For the next several nights, anyone who passes will see that firelight, they will be drawn in to the intoxication of possibility where darkness normally reigns. Travelers will see a pinpoint noting where love remains binding and blinding, bright against a December night. Maybe the image will be so compelling, as in the case of “Winter Sucks” spelled out in Christmas Lights on the Wiley Ranch, they’ll pull over. Stop. Take a picture.

As the cemetery disappears behind us, and as Bo began to drive us home, I also sense a final sentiment in this moment. I’m no longer sure we are really meant to move beyond our losses when we “move on”, nor are we meant to be leaving or burying the indelible marks on our hearts of those we lose. Maybe in our losses, we are meant to accept a gentle transition, while incorporating a different relationship with our brandings, our scars and our memories. The impact of those we’ve said goodbye to isn’t to be buried. Rather it is to be unearthed and to shine and to ignite the potential of the fragility of time.

Maybe as the ancient poet Dante reflects in Paradiso, through the timeless guide Virgil, the way in really is the way out. And the way down really is the way up. That to mourn is to escalate the volume of our hearts to yes, experience grief; to bare our most sacred vulnerability and yet we are also called to survive and to light our little candles. We open up. so that others can love on us. I see no better way to honor the miracle of human interconnectedness than to courageously embrace such a perspective. To mourn is to stand brave and naked and let others cover us. Our interdependence—for this is what it is to know the human version of the divine, daring to believe in a beginning after the end, is where we light a flame that uniquely dares to hold the extinguished candle of another.

We turn south, leaving the lights of Colville behind us. Soon, the darkness envelopes us, holding us in silence and Bo is driving rationally--his mood subdued. Finally he can take the quiet no more, and now the radio plays. I look out the window recognizing a Clay Walker Christmas carol, one of Stevie Jo’s favorite musicians. As the highway opens up before us, the after-midnight traffic remains sparse, the sound of the tires on the road harmonizing with the hypnotic effect of two chilled bodies warming from the cold, the sense that again we are going somewhere familiar, and the possibility that for the first time in a very long time, I feel right with the world. That no matter how much loss Bo encounters or I will encounter, ultimately everything in my life is always well even when it appears otherwise.

We jog east in Chewelah and began to climb Flowery Trail Pass, as snow flies in all directions.  Somewhere just after the summit I finally drift off to sleep.  With visions of white and light and Flat Creek Candles still dancing in my head.
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