Thursday, January 20, 2011

Every Sailor needs A Sea

When the snow falls between the hours of December and January, a new year turns. Just like that. A sleep later and you will need to remember to write the date differently, to remember you will turn a year older and to remember that winter has just begun in a sea of white. The second hand moves to the pulse of snow falling outside your window.

Luckily this past new year as the clock arched it's way to midnight, I was standing in an American Legion Bar in Libby, Montana. We, my husband, our friend Ian and his girlfriend, Kassi, all had weak drinks in plastic cups to cheer as the country western band kept playing a slow Merle Haggard. The whole scene of aged couples--women with newly coiffed hair and men with worn cowboy hats danced with belt buckle to sequined top in a twirl like a long poem songed on a worn-out dance floor. We cheered as the neon clock clicked to midnight. We welcomed our luck having set sail out from a winter storm and landed in a warm north western Montana bar.

The next day we moved slow to put our layers onto ski. Our destination was a ski hill, Turner Mountain, which none of us had ever been to and some of us had never even heard of. The night previously as Ian and my husband, Greg, checked into the hotel the owner said, "you guys know what you are doing goin up there to Turner? It's like.." And he used his right hand, angled at a pitch of 90 degrees. "It's well, it's pretty steep."

As we slowly made our way up to the mountain on a crisp clear January 1st morning, we were headed into an area referred to as The Yaak. I have no idea why The Yaak is called this for no animals of the sort live there at least that I know of, but in a way, the name suits the place: mountainous, northern pitch of snow and wilderness. The winding road was densely forested on either side and that morning we weren't too anxious to get anywhere. We went slow. We climbed west in the minivan, but as we looked up to the rising mountains out of the trees we could see a lone ski lift, slowly moving chairs into the clouds. Or so it seemed. We couldn't believe our luck. Again.

We finally reached the parking lot and realized we had all spent our cash the night before and wondered if we could use our cards. Kassi and I headed into the lodge where a modest wood stove pumped heat and a kiosk of sorts had one person behind an aged cash register. The lodge had views of the Cabinet mountains and a few skiers were sitting on long school lunch room tables drinking cocoa from white styrofoam cups. I couldn't decide if we had landed in paradise or a part of the eighties? Some odd whimsical world where the new year was a clock turning back, back and back. I half expected a yak to walk up and want to be fed.

But when the kid behind the kiosk said, "yeah, we take cards." He pulled out what I used to use at my mom's clothing store back in the early 80's for credit cards, a boat anchor of what you could barely call a machine. We signed our carbon copies, gathered our tickets and went out to ski. The day was bright and bold. Beginning our new year in a place we all felt we could have been before. Not a place we had passed in our youth or a place we would have placed as some distanced memory. A place we would want to return to over and over again. The kind of place where you visit before you fall asleep and all you see is bright light from a numb sun. Crystaled light glittering off waves of white. Smiles from your lover in silence backdrop. Memory of your private sea you keep for nights of restlessness.

And that day was endless. We skied all day into the sun, into the leeward drifts, through the glades of open trees and open to what the new year had in store for all of us. We put our faces to the sun as the slow lift brought us up to the top. We just kept saying how amazing our luck had been to find such a place. As if we had found some place we had always wanted to go, but didn't know had exisited before. A place to turn over a year and feel the westering in our lungs as we looked at mountains and clear air.

For many a new year arrives with fog from the night before and a mirror of resolutions. January first arrives with the resolute intention to mark change, newness as if we begin to do push-ups for our brain--to muscle out the old voices and actions we might have grown comfortable with, but know are no longer healthy. But really, in January? In the beginning of the wintering, the new tide of snow that just begins to rise. January really isn't the time for abrupt change. It is a time of quiet reflection of wintering and feeling placed.

For years, I have kept a piece of paper my father gave me that hangs next to my desk. Sent to me in a lone envelope. It's a quote from Emily Dickinson from a letter she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862.

The Sailor cannot see the North,
but knows the Needle can.

And for years, I kept thinking the needle was something outside of me-some device or some thing. I believed in the metaphor, the meaning, and of course the messenger, but I questioned what was my needle? What mechanics did I have in me to be set in the right direction. Maybe it seems a bit odd, but that day, that first day of January as we rode up into the sky of what seemed like the end of Montana and maybe the end of this earth and into some other world, I had this feeling of direction. I felt placed in a cloud of snow. The needle came to me not some apparatus, but rather a deepening of faith in what I cannot always see, but know is there.

Simply, the needle is awareness in being present...whatever we do to help us be, here. And this is my wish to you, to do what you need to do to be present. To be here even if you cannot see where you are as a place of purpose, know and trust that the needle can. Every sailor needs a sea. Every person needs faith that they also contain a needle in them. And really, north is not the only direction worth heading towards.

So whatever it is skiing, reading, cooking, sailing or singing may you do it with earnestness and faith. May you all feel placed. Happy New Year.

Enjoy the poem.

Earnest Ode

When the sailors are sick of seal fat and salt,

the captain leaves his men like urchins, sails

with a carpenter to South Georgia Island

to climb a mountain in Wellingtons.

Boots suited to plant hydrangeas in the spring

mud of London. He crawls up a glacier of rock,

ice hinged on the South pole. Spring never arrives here

with signs of dirt. It unbuckles from the island of ice

the captain staggered over with twenty-seven men

and the cook’s cat, Mrs. Chippy, the only one left for dead.

Another hunches over his typewriter, thumbs

his beard and tries to write from a spit of marsh

land in Florida. His night sweats smell of hotel

sheets in Cuba, where he never writes or sleeps.

So he returns to the Keys, stales the day

with his six-toed cat, Diego. Sure, there’s gazelle

heads, the tiger from Bengal, but he doesn’t like to look

at cats. He likes to say the word nada, Our nada

who art in nada and sees his father

as an old man on a bridge, somewhere with snow.

And yet, it’s the puppet that gets us.

More monster than man, muppets live together

on one street, where all animals speak.

Unlike Mt. Olympus, muppets don’t travel

much. They teach us to share, like the one

who lives with his partner in a small apartment.

He ruffles Bert’s hair, buys him pajamas,

and writes him songs he sings in the bath,

keeps the door open enough, so Bert will hear

Yes, I'd like to visit the moon
But I don't think I'd like to live there
Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above
I would miss all the places and people I love.