“Your Photograph Is Only As Good As the Glass”: Leprosarium, Part 4 (On Radio, Mixtapes, Live Music, Maintaining a Sense Of Wonder, Sinéad O’Connor, Aviaries, Photography, Emerge Coeur d’Alene, and More)

[Note: I started this post several months ago on a flight back from San Francisco and Oakland, where I had presented at the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture. I return to it now, editing lightly and posting “as is” because I have been thinking about music and songs and songwriting after recently researching the backstory on “Torn” and having presented a “walk through”/installation version of Between Tower and Sea at the Emerge Pop Up Show in Coeur d’Alene a few days ago. If you are here because of that encounter, thank you for visiting. You are part of this post!]


I first heard “Nothing Compares 2 U” while sitting in my mom’s Pontiac outside a gas station somewhere near Dixons Mills or Thomasville, Alabama. My mom was inside paying. I switched on the AM radio in the J2000 station wagon, turned the tuning knob, and stopped somewhere along the frequency band, captivated by Sinéad O’Connor’s voice–so powerful, even through the tinny factory speakers. Its juxtaposition with the keys. The feelings of longing and absence and loss. Tension. Resolution. Too soon, the song was over.

I had no idea then who was behind the voice, or the name of the song, or that it had been written and composed (but not released) by Prince, or that later, I would buy O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got album. No idea that I would start playing guitar and would cover the song at the Crosstime Bar/Saloon in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. No inkling that Chris Cornell would cover it, or that he and his daughter Toni would record a version. That Toni would share this as a Father’s Day tribute. No idea that all of these “facts” would be so connective with my friends Tracy and Josue (and perhaps others?). This is how the song has worked into my life now.

Then: a moment at a gas station, but also: the present. Immediacy. The moment. It didn’t matter that I had no way to know who was singing. No smart phone, wireless, cellular data, crystal ball. No way to start searching and uncovering right then. Later, I would hear the song again. And again. Later, I could sing it. Look up lyrics. Look up history. Later, I could think about how subtle and tenuous and powerful the timbre of someone’s voice can be. Could consider these flexions. Could consider the intersections. How we pause–on humid nights in Alabama, at Monday and Thursday open mic nights in Virginia and Vermont, in conversations with family, recalling “The Mountains of Mourne”, at Friday night concerts, like tonight, on winter’s verge [and in moments of quiet, between the bands at a festival or show]. How we catch fragments of songs. How we dance to the different rhythms.

Now, in 2018 [2019], I can listen to and watch half a dozen versions of that one song–Prince, Prince and Rosie Gaines, Sinead O’Connor, Chris Cornell, etc.–all while sitting on the deck at the house or in the Schweitzer lodge or on the bus. Now, I can slip into the fascinating tangle of information and backstory about singers and bands and recording labels and songs and albums and name changes and everything that music history is. And then there are millions and millions of songs. Hundreds, thousands, of musics.

Music–how it layers and connects. Songs. Sounds. Podcasts. Aural Landscapes.

I won a package of NutterButters a few [several] months ago at Open Mic at the Pearl Theater. For once I knew answers to some of the trivia questions that get asked between the musicians and poets and novelists. U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and Paul Simon’s “April Come She Will.”

A nondescript spring evening. Another small town Thursday evening. I was sitting with Barb, Rona, Jasmine, Anne Marie, and Sophie. Barb, with whom I have played and sung now for nearly a decade. Through losing family members, through creative ventures and celebrations and long winter evenings at local bars, with Josh on percussion, with India Rain harmonizing. Sitting among friends, mingling, I listened to the poets and singers. And Mark sang Woody Guthrie. And Tom sang “Morning Has Broken,” and I felt the connectedness of time and community, even as their fragility was apparent as ever, Tom mustering the strength for a beautiful rendition, this just day’s before heading to Mexico for cancer treatment. “Morning Has Broken,” played in that same Pearl Theater building decades before it was the Pearl, played when Rebecca and I got married.

Music a linkage. Music a momentary realignment, a live thing, a connective tissue, a healing measure, a reprieve from all the damage that the Forces of History and the realities that Biology and Disease have inflicted on us, from all the damage that we have inflicted on others and on ourselves.

Last summer I walked to within a few meters of a mountain bluebird before he flew west across the field, toward the trees. As I rounded the curve of road, he dove toward me from a Ponderosa. A flash of white and blue in the early light. Close. Curious even? Then he wheeled hard right and ascended to perch on a fir branch. I snapped a quick phone image of him, something that leaves him gray and pixelated, a poor representation of his vibrance and being. His existence. (I think here of Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist, and how impermanent and imperfect and inadequate our representations are.)

I have been thinking of birds, partly since recording some of them singing in a locust tree at the Weatherby rest area on I-84. That was last spring on the trip to the Idaho State 3A Track Championships. Partly, I am also thinking of birds because of the birdsong that inhabits the various cedars and firs that surround our house and which was [is] so audible during the summer (warmer weather and open windows). Partly, I have been thinking of Barry Lopez’s work–Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, “Gone Back Into the Earth,” and “The Passing Wisdom of Birds.” Tundra swans and migration. Cycles. Erosion. Music reverberating from canyon walls. Birds and how they evade and regard. Aviaries and how we destroy them. Aviaries and how we gather around them. How I used to play music for my mother by the aviary at Life Care. She and the other residents would gather and listen. And we would watch the birds.

There’s this: I’m looking for our interaction–with each other, with nature, with memory, with imagination–through sight and sound, through a texture or a look or an expression. Something nuanced. Something not. I am interested in the media we use too. Do we record? Do we write? Do we play instruments? Do we perform live? Do we take photographs? Do we make videos? Do we share all of this? Do we care and craft our stories? Do we care about others and their stories? And if so, how?

My friend Theron and I sometimes play guitar. We talk about music and travel and parenting and life. Sometime last year he introduced me to Chris Shiflett’s podcast “Walking the Floor.” This past [Last] summer I started listening to episodes during morning walks. Shiflett is probably best known as the lead guitarist for the Foo Fighters. On “Walking the Floor” he interviews a variety of musicians. In conversation with Lee Ann Womack, Colter Wall, Lucinda Williams, etc., Shiflett follows a general theme of lineage and influences. He asks where people source their stories and songs and creative output. Their investment. It’s compelling to hear where people find their motivations.

Several weeks [months] ago my son bought a used camera lens at McGinnis’s antique shop up at Three Mile corner, where U.S. Highways 95 and 2 separate or converge, depending on which direction you are going. It’s a manual Vivitar lens with good glass, and with a little research, a little searching, he was able to find an adapter to fit the lens to his modern Sony. The photographs he has been taking with this setup recently have drawn notice, and for good reason. I remember when we were standing in the antique shop surrounded by the various memorabilia from past decades–gas station signs, runner sleds, automobile parts, and tools–he inspected the lens. Did some quick reading on the internet, considered the possibilities of the housing and the glass.

I am thinking of this moment now, as Alaska Flight 1379 descends toward Seattle. We are at 8132 ft, 313 mph, although the data constantly change. A few minutes ago, we were flying near Cascade volcanoes Hood, St. Helens, and Rainier. I snapped a few photos out of the scratched and scarred window, noting the minimum reach of snow. It is the end of October. Soon, the Pacific storms will cover all the exposed rock.

[Continued, in June, 2019, following the Emerge Pop Up Show in Coeur d’Alene last weekend. Returning to this post months later feels strange, but I’m just going to add a bit and then post.]

Here’s the thing. I have been walking in the morning and seeing western bluebirds again. Two pairs today. And I have listened and re-listened to the Re:sound #252 Analog show a few times since last year, delighting in the textures of the stories, the celebration of analog recording. And I have been researching Kodak Ektachrome and Fuji Provia and Velvia, following several discussions with photographers and artists and others at the Emerge show. And Angus so kindly gave me a vintage Mamiya SLR film camera after our conversation at the Emerge preview party, and now I am re-reading and re-learning. Considering film. Planning for slides. Scheming voyages and framing and projects. During the Emerge Pop Up Show, some of the most connective moments were through the analog equipment, the tactility of holding viewers, the brush of fingertip against 2 x 2 inch cardboard frames. I feel the momentum of these themes and times. Project Work.

I showed the Mamiya to my son, and he was immediately curious about the lens. With its 42mm standard threads, it fits the adapter he has for his Sony, and he borrowed it, shooting some mesmerizing fern photos with it on a hike to some local waterfalls yesterday.

“Your photograph is only as good as the glass,” my son says. And he’s impressed by this decades-old lens, a surprise gift from a new acquaintance, a person whose stories and experiences overlap with ours aesthetically and poetically–in photographs and stories and climbing, time spent in the rock gym and the mountains.

And this is how all of this is: the bird song, a song on the radio, a line or two or three of poetry influencing an artist so many years later, artistry and technical knowledge passed from one to another, a whole history behind the moment of an image or dance move or song, a photograph in a gazebo at an art walk, the quality of light through a sculpted butterfly’s wings, splashes of color, a spread of canvas as a community art project, the textures of monochrome, unstretched canvas paintings hung in stairwells, community poems, dimensions, horizons. The delight and wonder I saw on so many faces as they peered through the loupe viewer at the slides illuminated from beneath, my mother’s stories and experiences brought to life as if a time capsule had been opened with a gentle twist of the hands. The cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. The stretch of the Pacific Ocean. Towers in British Columbia. An elephant beneath trees in a zoo in Saigon in 1961. Boats on the South China Sea. Mothers and children standing in a refugee camp. A girl, shading her eyes from the sun as she stands on the shore near the Happy Haven Leprosarium. An amputee blowing bubbles. People’s lives intertwined for 1/250th of a second as the mirror flips up and out of the way, allowing the light bouncing off the face to strike the silver halide on the thin membrane of diapositive Kodachrome, a fixed moment.


These are the stories we imagine. The stories we experience. The stories we tell. And that vanish, even as we tell them. We’re here briefly, momentarily, to share and to listen, suspended like stars above stones jutting from the waves at Cannon Beach. Tell me, what stories, what musics, what images, what sculptures, what dancings will be next?

“. . . morning light can make the most vulgar things tolerable.”

For a couple of years when I was a student at Bryan College, I stayed up all night virtually every Tuesday. I was copy editor for our weekly newspaper, The Triangle, and Tuesday nights we did layout because our proofs had to be to the printing press first thing Wednesday. 2 or 3 A.M. we might still be developing black and white photographs in the darkroom. I can still recall the particular texture–sound, smell, tactility–of applying tiny dots of wax with a roller. Affixing print photographs.

I remember the Macintosh. Working with text and sizing articles using Adobe PageMaker. Rituals such as eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Making a run to the Frontier House for a double patty burger with cheese, fries, and a slice of onion half an inch thick. The white styrofoam container. Truck stop fare. A break from our office space. Our tiny editorial staff. Laughing away the late night/early morning. Delivering the proofs in my Volkswagen Rabbit. Producing a fragment of creative output–the student paper–newsprint delivered around campus every Wednesday afternoon.

It was routine irregularity, layout night, a strange sliver of schedule mixed in with the sorts of haphazard sleeping and waking and studying and writing and hiking and working and walking and reading that characterized my college experience.

All of this comes to mind now as a confluence of several thoughts and experiences. Yesterday and today we have driven early to Schweitzer, today catching beautiful 8 o’clock light above Lake Pend Oreille.

I like leaving the house in complete dark (at this time of year and at this latitude, still to be had at 6:45) and transitioning into grey and golden light on the road. Yesterday morning and this, driving Highway 95, somewhere in the valley between the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains, we listened to “Myth” by Beach House. And HÆLOS. And I thought of that early morning scene in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

They are at the country house. Richard, Tartt’s first-person narrator, wakes early. Henry is already awake, sitting on the porch, drinking an espresso, smoking a cigarette, translating Paradise Lost into Latin. It’s a scene about insomniacs, and I have thought of it many times over the years, as something in the language, some captured moment, or look, or recognition, or observation, or reflection, resonates with me. It evoked a familiar early morning feeling when I first found the book in 2002 after reading Therese Eiben’s interview with Tartt in Poets and Writer’s Magazine.

Here is part of the text, part of the story.

“‘I sleep better out there than I usually do,’ said Henry, adjusting his glasses and bending back over the lexicon. There was a subtle evidence of fatigue, and strain, in the slope of his shoulders which I, a veteran of many sleepless nights, recognized immediately. Suddenly I realized that this unprofitable task of his was probably nothing more than a method of whiling away the early morning hours, much as other insomniacs do crossword puzzles.

‘Are you always up this early?’ I asked him.

‘Almost always,’ he said without looking up. ‘It’s beautiful here, but morning light can make the most vulgar things tolerable.’

‘I know what you mean,’ I said, and I did. About the only time of day I had been able to stand in Plano was the very early morning, almost dawn, when the streets were empty and the light was golden and kind on the dry grass, the chain-link fences, the solitary scrub-oaks.”

And I think of what the Matador Records HÆLOS website says of the album Full Circle: “Every generation has their own version of the blues, music that captures a sense of melancholia and provides a sonic reflecting pool for young lovers, old souls, and the eternally heartbroken. . . . The London trio’s version of a night out is a million miles away from mirror balls and sweaty bodies, their rippling electronic pop conjuring the exhilarating privacy of a cavernous club’s dark pockets and the introspective comedowns that accompany rainy 5 a.m. cab rides.”

A couple of Sundays ago I 5-A.M. napped by Lake Coeur d’Alene, waking to hike in the dawn light around Tubbs Hill.

Below, the lights of the Coeur d’Alene Resort shone on the docks and boardwalks and boats and boat launch. I saw two statues at the edge of McUen Park that celebrate the miners, construction laborers, and farmers of the past. There are so many named and unnamed, known and unknown, whom we could honor through statuary and story and dance and song. Who are they?

I tried not to bother a man sleeping beneath a green tarp on the sidewalk near the boat ramp. I looked across the lake. I thought of all the people that make up everywhere or anywhere. Their personal histories. Our shared geographies.

In that morning’s quiet, and in this one’s, I get an inkling of the currents that flow around us and connect us, the ones we do and do not see. The conversations we hear. The ones we don’t. And I feel the gaps both marked and subtle too.

In the day-to-day, in the mad tumble of competing demands, the mayhem and cacophony, our increasingly fragmented and liquid culture, I find it both necessary and luxurious to slow. There is much in the world that is “vulgar.” I am too. Angry at times. Frustrated and baffled by my own and others’ apathy and disconnectedness. By recalcitrance and disjointed contexts. But slowing, in that transition from night to day, there is tolerance, and more. There’s the gift of another day. To drive the pre-dawn road. To hear the music. To listen to it. Ambient rhythms and arpeggios. Golden light between the high cloud cover and the grey lake, blue and white mountains in between.

These are older contexts–rhythms of storm and current and tide. Wave frequencies. Harmonies. Disharmonies. Music and winter. Ice. Freeze and thaw. Gravity and fire. Exposure. Wind. These soften and erode and destroy our arrogances and ignorances. I look across the mountain peaks and contemplate the massive lobes of ice that once filled these valleys. Ice extended from far, far to the north.

What did dawn look like above those glaciers? How did the light play on the surfaces of those ancient, fractured, frozen rivers, flowing eventually to the grey-green ocean? How did solar eclipses shadow the crevasses and nunataks? And what echoes, what seismic tremors, what hints remain for us to brush against or register, on this, and/or any other morning?

Delaware. Vermont Studio Center. James and the Giant Peach.

We just crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge from New Jersey into Delaware. From the bridge’s elevation, I have views upstream, toward Wilmington, and downstream, toward the Atlantic. Traffic slows. Other passengers take advantage of the gorgeous July light to take photographs. On the Jersey bank, a complex of industry. What? I don’t know. White, grey, and blue buildings. Tower cranes. Repair projects. Pipes. A tugboat plows the brown river toward the bridge. The Delaware bank thick with reeds or cattails, some sort of marsh vegetation. Fuel tanks in the distance. Shipyards or docks. The equipment or apparatus, the machinery, that loads and unloads ships.

My mind flashes back to a childhood next to the South China Sea. I remember oil tankers. Ships bound to and from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, and more. I remember standing at Likas Bay, looking to the sea. Or Tanjung Aru. Or Karambunai Beach. Pulau Sapi. Pulau Manukan. And I remember, the other direction, Mt. Kinabalu rising into the clouds for over 4,000 meters.

Now, I search Maps for the Delaware Memorial Bridge. That’s Rittenhouse Industrial Park in the nearground, past a rust colored mud bank and some several hundred acres of impossible green. That’s Deepwater Canal. Cherry Island Pond. Whooping John Creek. What are all those buildings? Rail lines? Who lives in that neighborhood near Lambson Ln, Delaware side? That farm off Shell Rd, U.S. Highway 130, Jersey side?

Look left. The steel cables and structures of the bridge frame the view. Marvel at the massive bolts. The heft. The diameter of the cables suspending us. At the engineering. Try to imagine the people who built this bridge. Try to picture their lives.

I had this thought in the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, staring at the ceiling, at the pipes and electrical systems, all the construction, all the infrastructure: someone built this. Someone labored here. Many people. And they maintain. The checking for wear. The replacement of parts. The grid that is the city, visible, invisible, was made by human minds. Human hands.

I think of the flow of history and consider how briefly we’ve been crossing this bridge in 54 passenger buses. How temporal our toll booths and cities and industries are. What did this river look like a hundred years ago? Two hundred? Five hundred? A millennia? Beyond? And it’s the same in the river valley where I live in Idaho. Ancient currents and recent trends.

We slide by in our vehicles, intent on destinations. Or just passing the time. Distracted. Where are we heading? What are leaving behind? How accustomed are we to running? To forgetting and overlooking the imaginative ventures, the creative minds, the multiplied effort, the work of all of this—soaring cloverleaf, hulking industrial complex, tiled tunnel, gleaming tower? To forgetting and overlooking all of this in the context of natural history? Water cycle. Germination. Freeze. Thaw. To forgetting and overlooking and neglecting and ignoring and shutting out the stories all around us? The personal histories? How accustomed are we to failing to listen?

Our bus dives into another tunnel. “Welcome to Maryland.”

We’re in our own worlds, nearing our destinations. On the left, a building of The Baltimore Sun. A passenger ship. Cruise Maryland. In the distance, some sort of ship of commerce. I don’t have time to snap a photo. The Gould Street Power Plant. On the right, M & T Bank Stadium.

We still have some miles to go. There’s still some time for this road’s reflections. To see. To write. To hear. To consider. Consider the Journey. Consider the stories.

I look at the diverse range of humanity around me on this bus. A little boy chatters to his father in the seat behind me in a language I don’t know. He sings. His mother enjoys a few moments of quiet. A family traveling from somewhere to somewhere.

It won’t be long before we are at Union Station. Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital city. The Capitol. A center of power to some. A place of history and museums and monuments to others. A “swamp” to some. A cesspool. To some, a place to “be drained.” Home to others. A place of mythic power. Another place simply to exist. It’s the same everywhere, even as it’s not. We live out our lives amid the political and cultural and social and economic and biological and historical forces.

I remember feeling the city’s contrasts and currents when I was here in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We came here for the World Tuberous Sclerosis Conference in 2014. And last year I was so happy to be here, to visit a friend I had not seen in a long, long time. So happy to make new friends. To attend the Asian American Literature Festival. To listen to the music. The poetry. The Warehouse Descendants at the Seven Corners Pub. Poetry Slam and Literaoke in the Dupont Underground. Gowri Koneswaran. Ed Lin. Andrew Lam. Louis Tan Vitale.

I think of all the stories and music behind each face. Our collective and disparate geographies. What we choose to tell and reveal. What we obscure and how we mythologize. I think of friends and acquaintances battling cancer. Working through aging. Recovering from the death of a former student. A death by suicide. Of other losses. Friends working through the questions and doubts of parenting. Job changes. Opportunities. Lay offs. Insomnia.

I think of how listening to others and playing a little music at places like the open mic at Moogs Place can open conversations. How riding a ferry across a lake in Canada brings a few minutes of joy. How a day of alpine rock climbing restores perspective.

Last week I visited the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. I was there for a poetry reading given by visiting writer Ocean Vuong. I was a few minutes early. Parked on the street. Walked up the steps of the Lowe Lecture Hall. The door was locked. I headed back toward my borrowed vehicle to escape the rain. A woman called to me from the sidewalk, “Are you here for the reading?” That moment’s pause introduced me to Ashley, and then George, who was also early, and then conversations about art, music, radio, and the ephemeral nature of media. We talked about photographs and records and slides, ways of recording the world, and which we misplace and lose. Libraries.

In the quiet space, Ocean read a few poems from Night Sky With Exit Wounds as well as some of his newer work. This, from “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”:

“Don’t be afraid, the gunfire / is only the sound of people / trying to live a little longer / & failing. Ocean. Ocean— / get up. The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed. & remember, / loneliness is still time spent / with the world.”

And after the reading, we shared tiny fragments of our stories. A few common friends. A common birth land. Children of the Vietnamese Diaspora. Viet bodies inhabiting space in North America in 2018. The United States of America in 2018. An acknowledgement of the Work. Of our Practice. Of Teaching. Of Writing. Of Hybridity. Of Trying. Of Inhabiting No-Where. Of how we are Survivors. We are a people who are learning to survive. We find each other. We are learning to find each other.

There’s more to say of about all of this. Yesterday on Amtrak–meeting Willie and Patty. Jack. Molly. Feeling the interconnectedness of our paths. Vermont. Idaho. Wyoming. Libraries. Indigenous culture. The Chăm. Adoption. Towers by the Sea. And then, last night I watched my nephew perform in the musical James and the Giant Peach at the beautiful Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vermont. I had been wait listed and was happy just to get in, even more so to have a seat right on the floor next to the stage. Immersive Art. At one point the shark puppets and the actors holding them swooped by, and I felt the wind from them.

After the show, I climbed up the steps into the upper seats and took a photo of the last scene’s set. It’s just a snapshot, but I love it. The feel of the dark theater and the glowing stage, the glowing set, the Peach. It’s how I felt—about stories (how even this bus I am riding in is named after the favorite children’s book of the founder), and music, and connection, and distance, and how we set out on journeys, adrift in the ocean, on the Journey.

And we look for each other.

We look for each other.

What will we find next?

Boston South Station. Quinebaug River. Sumac. Thruway.

I am listening to “Aurora Borealis” by John H. Clarke, riding the Peter Pan Express 1113 from Boston to New York and transferring to Washington, D.C. It’s Sunday morning, and as I listen to how Clarke interprets the Northern Lights as notes and chords, rhythms played on a nylon string guitar, I watch the forests and cities slide by. I am not far from Charlton. I-84 has just begun. A cell tower points to the sky; we cross the Quinebaug River. Thickets of hardwoods and Eastern White Pine dominate the roadside, punctuated by blue, green, white, and yellow highway signs. “Sturbridge.” “Weigh Station 1 Mile.” “Holland MA.” “Union CT.” “Out of State Firewood Restricted Permit Required.”

This is Unknown geography. Unknown Geology. Each rock cut reveals the underlayment. Strata. Rocks now tawny and copper colored. A few miles ago grey streaked with white, or white streaked with grey. I see a marsh. A little later, a lake. I look horizontally through the canopy of trees. I think of all this greenery, this verdure. I have traveled to the eastern U.S. a few times in the last few years, but after inhabiting the West for a couple of decades, this deciduous world overwhelms me–a profusion of leaves!

A short section of graffitied concrete wall peeks out from a sumac thicket. We shift to the HOV lane. The interstate is relatively uncrowded, and this 8:00 A.M. bus is basically unoccupied. Five or six of us in transit between these cities at this time–early Sunday morning.

Overpass overhead. Dunkin’ Donuts. Holiday Inn Express. South Windsor. Manchester. The names recall England. Red, white, and blue birdhouses dot a wooden wall. I feel the signs and emblems and markings of our human passage. A turnpike sign. A tire store. The JCPenney Logistics Center. Still, underneath it all lies an ancient geology. Through it flows a beleagured river. Several. Above it, a patterned sky. A vine, a twisted trunk, a species of tree that I recognize but do not remember. Trees and trees over miles and miles. Millions and millions of trees. Compete with our interlacing and merging lanes, our terminable and interminable walls, our human edifices, our storage units, our capitals and capitols, our universities. Longhorn Steakhouse. Shop Rite. Walmart. Home Depot. Compete with Exit 23. Hartford Technologies. Dollar Tree.

I see a sign for Dinosaur State Park. Another wonder on this Highway Of Wonders.

And I think of all the nuances and details and shades of stories and people and places and nature and art and spirit. The interlacings and interweavings. Roots. Branches. Fruits. Seeds. Drupes. Rhizomes. Panicles. Flowers.

I think of the layers of complication and beauty and pain and loss and rejection and frustration that are as ubiquitous as the leaves on the forest floor. Of loneliness and laughter and poetry and war and family. Of sadness and guilt and singing and dancing. Of silence and hesitation. Of doors and stages and microphones. Glaciers, split granite, columnar basalt, sea stacks. Tarns and talus. Language. Disease. Of what we can and cannot heal and do and cure and conquer and save and redeem. Of journeys and habitation. Of all this: all this Living.

And I wonder: what will be next?

Leprosarium, Part Three

During a recent dinner out at Thai Nigiri in Sandpoint, a new acquaintance and I ended up talking about massage, waterfalls, and leprosy, which may seem divergent, but actually intersected in compelling ways that evening.

As many conversations grow, this one started by being work-related (middle school and massage school) and then shifted organically—to health, touch, culture, A Tale For the Time Being, guitar, percussion, coaching, skiing, media, isolation, The Motorcycle Diaries, art, connection, disconnection, busyness, balance—and now, a few days later, to reflection, reading, and writing.

Yesterday afternoon I read about the Kalaupapa community, partly because I have been curious about it ever since my son visited Moloka’i this winter, partly because leprosy has been in my personal lexicon for decades, and partly because of the recent conversation.

I have been thinking about how people strive for beauty, recreation, relationships, family, physical touch, love, hope. Just—everything. How we fight for our lives. For LIFE. All this despite having been banished, or sequestered, or quarantined, or outcast, or rejected, or left to die.

I do not want to make the mistake of “idealizing” here. How humanity survives or thrives amid destruction does uplift, but what about counting cost? Losses. Abandonment. Scars. Tissue damage. Amputations. Degradations. Humiliations. Overdoses. Obliterations. Rages. Guilt. Loneliness. Traumas. Fears. Separations. The consequences of walking blithely on. The consequences of creating leper colonies and refusing to touch. And more.

So many things, so many persons, so many people, so many peoples—

Have not survived.

Do not minimize. Do not patronize. Do not romanticize.

To succumb/to acquiesce/to surrender/to resist/to release/to remove/to embrace/to acknowledge/to breathe/to inoculate/to persevere/to atrophy/to preserve/to revive/to navigate/to wander/to ambulate/to stumble/to expire/to live/to question/to accept/to heal—what subtleties demarcate and delineate and define the shades between these verbs, these actions and/or states of being?

Are sickness and health, not mutually exclusive conditions, but cohabitants, a partnership, a shared existence?

And what do we do with our survival? How do the stories—the bridges and ligaments, the remnants and fragments of fabric, the tenuous music, the artifacts and images—connect us? All of us—those who remain and those who have perished? Those who have disappeared or been struck down? Those living in (in)voluntary self-exile? Those singing? Writing. Drawing. Listening. Those giving birth to new life? Holding it close?

What joins us? Just for a moment. Or across a lifetime. Or hemisphere. Or ocean. Across the maps that we make and re-make? Cartographies and boundaries and borders—polities and kingdoms—conquered, renamed, and undone. Cities turned to ruins, covered in jungle. Edifices toppled. Dreams shattered. Empires constructed and re-constructed and tottering and sustained. What poem do we find in the destroyed? In a city’s streets or among towering mountains? In the overlaps of communities and flux?

How could we craft new stories? Something created. Friendships found. A relationship renewed. A perspective freshened. A meal shared. An assumption dissolved. A stigma countered. A wound healed. A disease studied and studied and studied. A cure attempted, if not discovered. A history written and re-written and re-written.

For every story spoken—how many linger just beyond the silence?

I consider the “leper colony”—both the banished and the ones who banish—on morning walks, during afternoons sitting in the sun. Quiet evenings by a lake. Among the cedars.

In this morning’s light, I re-read what I have written about this before and before. I think of my mom’s slides and my photographs of them. Of this story. Of many other stories. Of how this writing is not done. Of how this work is not done.

Carolina, or Anywhere, In My Mind, Part One.

In the summer of 1992 I rode the Greyhound bus from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a distance of about 2,500 miles. I don’t think it’s even something you can do anymore, because I recently looked into catching the Greyhound in Coeur d’Alene with no luck.

That must have been powerful Journey to me, because I still have vivid memories a couple of decades later. Art of Seeing. Noticing. Texture. Dimension. Stories. Susan Zwinger and Diane Ackerman and Rebecca Solnit sort of stuff.

I had a grey cotton knapsack in those days, a bag I had owned in Sabah, Malaysia when I was a kid. I remember it having a drawstring top and uncomfortable shoulder straps. It wasn’t made for walking or hiking, but it worked fine for riding the old grey dog. I had that and a jean jacket and a mini duffle with my hammock and some clothes for a couple of weeks in Idaho. My grandfather had passed away a few weeks before, and I was traveling. Traveling for loss. Traveling for love. Traveling to let the miles and stories and musics and silences of Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho work things out.

I had a no-name cassette player with auto-reverse then, a luxury that my older and broken Sony Walkman didn’t have. I missed the Sony’s sleek aluminum aesthetic, but it didn’t work, so I had the bulky player from K-Mart or Roses. In the end, there is a pragmatism, yes? Okay. I had a handful of cassettes for the 75-hour ride–Enya’s Shepherd Moons, Roxette’s Look Sharp!, A-Ha’s Hunting High and Low, and Nanci Griffith’s Late Night Grande Hotel, among a few others. James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, which bothered one of my friends. He disdains the “Greatest Hits” motif. These are dim memories, dim issues, as we now employ Spotify and Pandora and Apple Music. (I am so “old school” with a couple of mp3 players and an iPod!)

I remember a man on the bus, a stubbled man in denim who was leaving Jacksonsville, North Carolina. He was heading for Livingston, Montana. A buddy’s couch (before “couch surfing” was hip). His last few bucks. A second or third or fourth chance at something, right? Some work. The Crazy Mountains. The Absarokas. The Big Sky. These were resonances for me then, and they are now. And this man–his story and journey and music–he and I are still connected today.

Yesterday morning, on the way to the 24th Street and Mission BART station here in San Francisco, I stopped for a cappuccino and raspberry tart at a bustling Italian bakery on Mission, a place of contradictions and tensions and texture–gentrification, hipster locations, a cultural center, El Salvadoran street food, taquerias, etc., etc. America–maybe the World?–compressed into a few neighborhoods. The ice cream. The coffee. The produce on the streets. Cesar Chavez. Murals. Music.

As I headed for the stairwell of the BART station I remembered that there was no food or drink allowed on the train. I paused to eat. To drink. To watch the sun rise above all of these human currents, the conflict and community. And music floated up from below. Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” recorded in 1971 by King and also by James Taylor. I am more familiar with Taylor’s version, and I heard echoes of it in the music rising above the tiles and escalators of the BART. A voice tinged with morning melancholy and happiness.

I thought of Stories and Music–their connective, associative, evocative power. And there’s more to say here, more to write, about the man in the BART station with the Spanish guitar. About how he was surprised that his voice carried to the space above. About long hair. About how it was just that sort of day. About music on Fisherman’s Wharf. About Art. About structure and focus. And galleries and writing. And coffee and beets and sandwiches and chocolate and parks and granite and grocery marts and tofu and skeletons. About generative conversations. About beginning, middle, and end. About how we revise, re-vision.

But for now, there’s just this: in that moment, standing in the morning’s light, I heard music–The Music–and I recalled how the man on the bus asked me if he could listen to the James Taylor song “Carolina In My Mind.” And as he slipped the cheap headphones over his head and ears, and the sounds were unfaithfully reproduced in low-fi, and as he pressed the rewind button again and again, listening to that song again and again–before you could put a song on “repeat,” set it as the single soundtrack, a single track of emotion and homesickness and longing–as all of this unfolded there on the bus, somewhere in the expanses of eastern Montana, somewhere in all of that, somewhere at the corner of 24th and Mission, at Fisherman’s Wharf, at the Pearl Theater in Bonners Ferry, at the Crosstime Saloon, in a million other places . . . I know that the Music connects us. I want to hear it. I want to play it. To sing it. To listen.


I remember first encountering the word caldera in seventh grade science class. We were studying volcanoes and tectonic plates. We lived in the Philippines. It was relevant and local. Then, the “Project Work” entailed buying potassium permanganate at the National Bookstore in Manila to replicate the lava and the eruption. It meant playing with this strange fire. It involved mixing plaster, and crafting the cone. It meant an explanatory poster of terms. It meant labels and process and summary. We may have learned the term “lahars” then, but I’m not sure. Sometime that term layered itself into my language, and about twenty years ago I thought of all this–of cinders and lava and magma and ash and pumice and plumes–standing on the summit of Mt. Rainier. Looking at Mt. Adams. Glacier-covered volcanoes emblems of the Pacific Northwest, but so much more ancient. Cascadia. And Beyond. Myth Time.

The seventh grade project was more than just the textbook and 3-D model building. It comprised one component of a lengthy unit that was linked to an outdoor education week that included camping on Taal Volcano and Taal Lake. We hiked lava floes, traversed the volcanic peaks, and studied the constellations. These were tangible, meaningful, indelible experiences. The terms that we name, the concepts, are meant to come to life. What does it mean to move beyond the glossary, to be moved by the immensity of the peaks above and below? What happens when we encounter the raw, elemental power of geologic forces and geologic time?

These fragments come to mind when I see the sign “Caldera” above a walking tunnel near the base of Red Mountain Resort in Canada. I am on a morning walk. The transition from pre-dawn dark to wan, pastel light illuminates the sign, an advertisement for a housing development. I am listening to Re:sound #246 The Mirrored Show, about mirrors, reflections, and our imagined and re-imagined selves. About fears and ironies and social norms. Thoughts (dis)appear. Impressions linger. The fog rises from the Columbia River, from Trail and Rossland, B.C., from the valley below. Light arrives, not by increments or sudden illuminating beam, but like water spreading on the surface of ice, or frost across glass, a thing that grows.

Now, several days later, with school/work/busyness/routine/recreation in the interim, all the multifaceted distraction that life can constitute, I struggle to recall everything that word–Caldera–conjured up during that morning’s walk. Thoughts and feelings. Memories and questions. Ruminations. Geologies. Geographies. Simmerings. Ironies. Juxtapositions. Imaginations.

Something in the delicate frost; something in the thin, pale light; something in the name of the path–The Centennial Trail; something in the encounter with the older gentleman and his dog (a moment’s conversation, the giving and receiving of directions, a touch of wet muzzle to the hand); something in the industrial clank of the Red Chair lift; something in the rise and bend of the road, an awareness of topography and rock cuts and veins of ore, of shafts of mine below the surface, obscured now by lodges and condominiums and rental cabins; something in the forest; something in the snow, that fragile, temporal, seasonal skin–something in all of this whispers of mountains, rivers, and seas. Of The Mountain. The Tower. The River. The Sea.

The day before: I am riding the chairlift through the fog. Our ascent takes us toward the light, toward the sun. A hundred meters or so below the summit of Red Mountain we break out of what a ski patroller tells me they call the Kootenay Sea. It’s a temperature inversion akin to what we experience regularly in the Kootenai Valley of Boundary County and above Lake Pend Oreille at Schweitzer. It’s at once familiar and fresh. The shift from feeling trapped beneath the mass of grey. The emergence into blue sky and white snow. The brilliance of Winter Sun. I’ve ridden lifts into it many times. And more, I’ve had the privilege to make the slow human-powered climb too. The slide of skis forward through the snow. The squeak of it. The pressured heel. Ski touring upward, upward. Solo, or quietly, with a few friends.

I look at the distant peaks across the Kootenay Sea. Somewhere out there is Mt. Gimli and its striking arête. Gimli of the Valhalla Range, a place explored in person and in writing/reflection a few years ago (Labyrinths). Somewhere among the mountains to the north are the glaciers and moraines that have played significant roles in shaping my perspectives and consciousness.

I have been working in earnest on a project (sometimes called “The Project” or “Project Work”) now for several months. In reality, it’s something that has been developing, been growing, for years. Perhaps my whole life. (Where does one project end–one essay or class or reading or poem or climb or journey or story–and another begin?)

Specifically, I have two upcoming important dates and deadlines. One is a hybridity project/presentation at a local arts venue. One is a discussion panel at a scholarly conference. I am looking forward to both but am also feeling the pressure and focus of their imminence. I’m thrilled by the interconnectedness of it all, of all our various creative ventures, our Project Work, of community, even as the work feels discontinuous–fragments and images and questions blowing around like so much spindrift. This is (in)coherence and (abs)traction. A thing that acts as a bridge and which sinks out of sight into the dark of a cold green river.

This is life, here in this valley, this caldera of sorts. A void. A displacement. A place of imagination and conjuring and fleeting and passing and revelation and disappearing. The Kootenay Sea. The riverside smelter. The mine’s tailing. The muscular river. Here, I am surfacing. Submerged. Immersed. Illuminated. Floating above. Floundering below. Hunched. Huddling. Sailing. Sliding. Singing. Climbing above to survey distant ranges. Towers rising above the Inversion. Ringing the ancient Caldera. Towers surrounding the Sea.