musings from the studio and beyond ~
dawn chandler’s reflections on art and life. . . .
Walk along the Santa Fe River, and most of the year you’ll be walking in dust. Either that, or on pavement. I don’t know if its ever been a continually flowing stream, but I do know that human intervention has changed it considerably from what it once was. When I first moved to New Mexico some 20+ years ago, the river seemed a sad joke, desolate with litter, scraggly weeds and dry dirt.
Lately though there’s been an organized effort to clean up and return the river to a natural life force. The river banks have been reinforced, weeds pulled, willow and cottonwoods planted, and a paved rec path now winds along much of its length.
Mostly though the river remains dry, as do so many of the waterways out here. It’s an intermittent stream as I learned back in my map & compass days. Meaning the riverbed fills with water only occasionally, as in springtime with the mountain snow melt, and in summertime with the afternoon monsoonal showers. When the river does flow, it flows briefly. Magically. Forcefully.
But these days it’s dry.
On New Year’s day we walked in the riverbed, my pup and I, drumming up slight clouds of dust, and darting through fans of red fronds, our explorations secluded within walls of willow and banked earth.
New Year’s Day is a day I normally feel upbeat. The turning of the year always inspires me, ignites me with desires and goals, destinations and journeys. But these days with so much conflict, so much distrust and destruction and disillusionment in the world, I’ve been struggling to feel optimistic. The beautiful, blissful mindfulness I found on my long September walk flew with the November west wind back to The Green Mountains. Sometimes it seems that in its place a dark cloud of smoke has started piling up just at my doorway, constantly churning and threatening to seep in through the cracks of my quiet world.
As the smoke of my mind churns, I catch myself —
Look around you.
There ahead on the left is a long ledge of a rock, jutting out of the south bank like a grand piano. Waist-high, it’s flanks are water-worn, with long chipped and rounded shelves. Something about it is strange though. . . . there are all sorts of little rocks on it, configured in an unnatural, even decisive way.
I step closer, as my eyes adjust, and exhale a small cry of of recognition and delight.
Dozens of heart-shaped rocks line the ledges.
Every one is different.
Different colors, different textures, some smooth, some rough. Some more perfectly shaped, others misshapen. Some minuscule, others enormous. Yet all the same. At their core, all related.
And each placed here by hands as various as the hearts they held — and hold.
I walked away smiling, for the first time all day.
On my way home I found a heart-shaped rock near the sidewalk and placed it in my pocket, and then — once home — by my door, so that later that day, when we returned to walk again, I could place my own heart beside the others.
Clouds and spitting snow and sunshine passed, and some hours later we returned to the heart shelf and I smiled again. But OH! I forgot my heart rock!
I so wanted to add one to the community of silent hearts.
I looked around along the river banks, a wee bit desperate to find another heart.
AH! Here’s one!
But the Perfectionist designer voice in my head said, Are you kidding? That hardly looks like a heart at all. You can’t put that up there — you need to find a better one.
Deflated, I looked around for another moment, when it struck me — Are YOU kidding? Your heart is perfect, just the way it is.
And I nestled my perfectly imperfect heart among the others.
I thought this little story might end there.
But the next day we visited the river heart shelf again, and, as I studied the menagerie for a moment I gasped a small breath of surprise and irritation: One of the large heart rocks next to where I’d placed mine was missing.
Just within the span of a few hours, someone had TAKEN one of the biggest, most special hearts!
I can’t believe someone would do that! How could someone do that?!
And then it occurred to me:
Maybe someone needed a big heart just now.
I know the feeling.
Has it really been a month since I hiked off the trail?
‘Seems impossible that one month ago today I was lying in a tent on a frosty morning deep in the northern Vermont woods 5 miles from Canada….
As I said, my thoughts these past four weeks have been largely hijacked by popular culture and news stories, such that my walk across Vermont seems a lifetime ago.
It seems fantasy. Not real.
But when I unplug my devices, and withdraw from the unnerving drone of the news, I find all it really takes is a moment’s stillness and a single deep breath to take me back to the quiet of the trail.
Do it now.
Take a deep breath.
Now look at this photo.
You have come a long way today.
You are tired, but content.
You are fed, and you are warm, bundled as you are in an old wool sweater, a little cap on your head, a red bandana around your neck.
In your hand, a steaming mug of tea.
You are alone — blissfully alone … except for the couple of crows who glide in and out of sight … not another sound but their wings, an occasional caw….
You’ll have this night to yourself.
In this welcoming shelter.
… with this little table at which to write.
It will be the first night you have spent alone — completely alone — in the woods. Ever.
You will sleep well and deep.
And come morning, you will rise to a beautiful day.
You will hike in solitude, for hours, through expansive hardwood forests, where,
from the shadows of beech trees, the cheerful ghosts from your childhood will whisper and sing to you.
and the next…
and the next after that
will be among your most cherished.
For you will have been present. Fully. Present. With each. Footfall.
For you will have heeded Thich Nhat Hanh — whose book Long Road Turns to Joy,
you’ve been carrying with you :
Breathe in and take one step, and focus all your attention…. there is Buddha nature in you.
Buddha nature is the capacity of being aware of what is going on.
Buddha nature is what allows you to recognize what you are doing in the present moment
and to say to yourself: I am alive; I am taking a step.
Anyone can do this.
There is a Buddha in every one of us,
and we should allow the Buddha to walk.
Come, let us walk.
Last year when I came crippled off my backpacking journey, I left the trail two weeks earlier than planned.
The frugal thing to do would have been to change my travel plans and return promptly home to New Mexico.
Fourteen days earlier and just five days into my Long Trail thru-hike, when my knees first started arguing with me, I feared I would have to abandon my walk. Sick with anxiety and the question of what to do, a fellow hiker urged me: Don’t give up. Change your plans if you have to. So you make it a section hike rather than a thru hike? Go take a zero day. Rest and ice those knees. Then come back to the trail. Maybe just for a day hike. Check it out. See how it feels. Then another day hike. Maybe you only make it this time to Killington. But you go back and you try again. You’ve done all this work to get here, you’ve put aside all of this time to be here in Vermont. Then be here.
That’s what I wanted to do, even after leaving the trail: Keep myself immersed in Vermont — in New England. Now. But in a different way. Let my journey continue, but maybe from wheels rather than feet. Maybe along back roads rather than forest trails. Maybe staring out to distant mountains from the swaddled warmth of a woven blanket and a white rocking chair on a maple leaf garlanded porch while my knees rested….Or from the northern Vermont acreage of an old tree farm and a mowed pathway through autumn fields with a new canine friend as companion….
Thanks to the touching generosity of my ever-expanding Vermont tribe, I was able to reshape my journey in a deeply healing way. Part of the gift My Tribe gave me was that of solitude: Time to reflect on my path. I spent the last days of my sojourn alone in a beautiful home with no real connection to the outside world. No computer. No cell phone. Just me. And quiet.
Somewhere in there I purchased an inexpensive set of watercolors, brush and paper. For, though I could be without news and music for days on end, I couldn’t be without Art. And so in those silent days of healing I wrote. I read. I thought. And I painted.
A year later…and I’ve now finished my journey.
This year within 24 hours of hiking past the final white blaze of my 274-mile walk, my senses were accosted by the jeers of a media carnival. The world exploded into my solace.
Now with each unfolding media drama, the connection to my walking peace seems ever more tenuous, as though access to that tranquility were a fairy tale magic doorway that’s accessible only for a precious short time before evaporating in a cloud of faerie dust. My focus since returning to the [un]real world has shriveled, as each headline fights for my attention; my usual early bedtime protracts later and later while my head spits and spins with the mental vomit of media-fed thoughts.
I can’t do this.
I won’t do this.
This morning before sunup I lock away my laptop and phone in the cabinet.
I enter my studio.
I spread my Long Trail map on my table.
I dig out my journal from last year’s hike and — what’s this?
…out spill those little watercolor studies I’ve not seen in a year.
I trace my finger across the painted contour of a maple leaf.
My mind is peaceful again.
I love Vermont and I miss it.
Though not a physical resident, in the last couple of years I’ve become a resident of the soul of Vermont.
I’ve so much more to reflect on and share about my long walk through the Green Mountain forests.
But I am a physical and soul resident of New Mexico.
And I’ve returned home in the midst of this land’s richest enchantment.
Autumn: that blessed time of year when dry arroyos and woodland floors fill with the gold coins of cottonwood and aspen leaves. New England is renown the world over for its brilliant autumn color. But autumn in New Mexico dazzles no less. Though we may lack the Northeast’s scarlet seas of red maple, our gilded specie is spun with that quintessentially New Mexico fragrance of roasting chiles and pinon wood smoke. And Blue. Sky. Clear and sharp as a jewel.
Journal Entry ~ 8 September 2016 ~ evening ~ Day One
Returning to a personally sacred landscape after a long hiatus is an extraordinary experience.
In a way, it’s as though you never left.
If you’re lucky and your sacred place has not been altered by development, then it’s all so familiar — the terrain, the moss, the breeze and sound of leaves turning, the smell of birch bark and balsam and pine…. It’s as though the year(s) since you left never existed. You were here then, and you’re here now.
And that’s all that matters.
I came off the trail with 100 daunting miles ahead of me.
Today I am back to finish those last 100 miles.
It has been a good day.
I am not without my fears.
I have no idea if my knees — my body — will hold up.
I don’t know if the weather will cooperate.
I don’t know if the terrain will cooperate.
There’s so much I don’t know.
But one thing I do know:
I had to come back.
I have to walk 100 more miles.
What’s funny is I wasn’t going to return this year.
I’d decided this past winter that I would wait until next year. For planning my 2015 journey was so completely consuming in the months leading up to it last year that I just felt it would be wise to give my life a break from that kind of intensity. My body could use a long rest, too, from that kind of endurance.
And my art career needed a long injection of focus after months of being largely distracted by the minutia of preparing for a thru-hike adventure.
So No. Not this year.
I would wait until 2017.
I was determined to wait until 2017 — it was the responsible thing to do — and told myself this again and again and…
Then….on a warm summer Saturday Santa Fe afternoon in June when my thoughts were once again hijacked by an intense yearning for The Trail, a voice in my head suddenly announced, Screw it. I’m going back THIS year.
Which is why
I found myself
on September 11th 2016 summitting Vermont’s highest peak….
two weeks after that
I found myself
finally at my Journey’s End….