Monday, September 25, 2006

Wednesday, August 9

I really did not feel like walking today. I’d had trouble sleeping last night; actually, most nights since I found out about Katie, so I was tired and in general feeling lazy and depressed. Plus, I’d had a few drinks last night, and I felt a little dehydrated and drained. But the weather was cool and the sun was behind the clouds so I didn’t have to worry about it beating down on me. For the past couple of weeks we’d been experiencing a heat wave, and I’d had just about all of the sun that I could take.

I had no real motivation for going out into the woods. It seemed I’d explored everything except only the farthest reaches of the Glen Park system. It seemed that anything new was miles and miles and miles away, too far away.

While I was walking Sy to work this morning, she mentioned off-handedly that Katie was a coffee-snob. I little jolt went through me as I noticed that was the first time today I’d thought of her…usually she’s in my head within minutes of waking. When we reached her work, we met one of Sy’s coworkers, who had also been a good friend of Katie, and she brought Katie’s name up too. Her name was starting to seem like a background din I needed to escape, and right then I decided to just walk and go wherever my feet took me. The only problem was that no matter where I went, I couldn’t escape the noise in my thoughts.

I walked the side streets on my way to Glen Park. On my way, I passed a rabbit who froze and stared at me as I approached. I took care to gradually slow my pace and soften my footfalls to see if I could prevent her from running off. As I got nearer to her, I noticed another, smaller bunny. The first rabbit glanced nervously at the second one; I think it might have been its mother. They both remained still as I practically tip-toed past them and around the corner.

Just before I reached the Swinging Bridge, I came upon a pigeon who was as suspicious of me as the rabbits had been. The pigeon slowly turned as I walked past him, always keeping his back to me and watching me from over his shoulder. I made my way past him without him flying off; when he judged me far enough away he casually returned to picking at the gravel in the road.

While I was crossing the Swinging Bridge into Glen Park, it came to me that I’d never fully explored the right-most path on the other side of the pole bridge; I’d run into a fisherman while taking that path and turned back rather than disturb him. Against my will, my thoughts reminded me that Katie was still walking the earth at that time, that my time might have been better spent talking to her rather than avoiding human contact in the woods. I shook my head and continued over the roaring river and through the playground until I reached the trail system.

As I walked down the steep entrance, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen the crane in quite some time. This thought also got me down; over time I’d begun to see him as a sort of mascot or guide. The sight of him was enough to lift my spirits, but lately he was nowhere to be seen. Sy had mentioned to me that she’d seen him; in fact, she’d seen more than one, and that brought out some jealousy in me, and also a sense of rejection. I wanted to see the crane just one more time before migration.

I followed the winding path down to the bottom of the lower falls, but got distracted by a path that ran east and uphill, which I took. I’d traveled this path once before, in the early spring (or was it late fall?) but turned around when I noticed all the houses through the bare trees. Now in the summer, the houses were completely obscured. I followed the trail, which went from a sand base, to rock, back to sand, and finally dirt, for around a half-mile. There was a fork in the path; one trail went straight and the other took a sharp right turn…it was a large path and I was almost certain that it led to the upper part of the trails, the part up on the hill away from but with good views of the river. I ignored the turn and continued forward. Eventually, it exited the woods into a large draining ditch behind a housing development. It was a giant paved nightmare, with a huge sewer grate that looked like an alien spacecraft perched in the middle.

At first, I had no idea where I was, but after studying the land I realized I was only about two blocks down the road from the entrance to the Glen Park trail system. So this was the source of the water that eventually led to the spillway below the lower falls…a large paved drainage ditch lined with backyards undoubtedly treated with harsh chemicals on a regular basis. My hope for the Kinnikinnic was lowered yet again.

I turned around and headed back towards the spillway. Halfway down the path I came to the fork again; this time I stopped and debated taking it. While I was contemplating my options, I noticed a very small path that went between the two paths in the fork which I’d never seen before. I felt the most welcome joy of surprise bubble up in me, and with haste I took the middle way.

This path traced the very edge of the hill, right above the little path carved out along the river just south of the spillway. Sections of split-rail fence, which seemed to have been put up ages ago, lined the edge of the path. Some sections were in need of some repair, others had entirely collapsed and begun to rot. The view of the falls was great, though a little obscured by shrubs growing along the cliff’s edge. The sound was full and deep, and you could feel the breeze the crashing waters generated. The trail itself was lined with wildflowers. There were a couple of posts that looked like little podiums along the trail. Apparently, they used to hold a plaque with information on the sights or something, but the wood where the screws used to hold this information in place had long since rotted (degraded?). It felt almost like ruins from a past culture. I stood admiring the falls and the large pool of the river below the falls for a while before I moved on.

The small trail did emerge on the upper part of the trail system as I had expected. From this main trail, through the trees, I could detect the profane vertical and horizontal forms of the houses that lined the woods. I walked along this path for a while, until I came to the place where many of the trails intersect, somewhere near the middle of the park. From the intersection, I could see one of the benches down by the river. I decided to go sit and meditate on it, since I hadn’t meditated before I left this morning.

Down by the bench, the current was noisy as it passed over large rocks in the riverbed. There were a few shrubs growing in front of the bench, but they had plenty of open space in them through which to watch the river. I sat down on the bench, appreciating how it was so tall that I felt like a child sitting on it, swinging my legs because my feet couldn’t reach the ground. I removed my shoes and socks and pulled myself, with a little difficulty, into a full lotus position.

I sat there, trying, unsuccessfully, to still my mind. Ten thousand stupid annoyances and diversions flushed into my head at once: images from television, what I had for breakfast, plans I had for the rest of my day, and brief passages from things I’ve read, among other things, buzzed inside me. Eventually, by focusing back on my breath, I came to some sort of peace. It was then that I noticed how the world was flowing around me; the leaves fluttered slow, then fast, then slow again as the trees bent slowly and gracefully in the wind, the river never paused as it flowed by, the grey clouds drifted slowly above the hills, birds flew past and sang to each other, even my breathing arose of its own resolve. My delicate peace gradually deepened.

Now that my mind was settled, I put my shoes and socks back on and began to walk down the path to the bench where I had had my strange communion with Katie. It occurred to me that I ought to come and maintain that bench; take care of it, almost like a shrine. Of course, I’d earlier in the summer (when she was alive, my brain reminded at me) I’d resolved to clean up litter I found in the woods on my travels, and I’m ashamed to say that I did not really follow through on that pledge. Maybe it was because the notion of taking on responsibility for the whole of the woods was a bit overwhelming. But maybe I could take care of this one spot, this one bench…that would benefit all the visitors to the park, and could contribute to a sort of Zen training.

About fifty feet down river, another bench sat. I left the main path and walked over to that bench. Virtually no sound came from the river as it flowed smoothly past this bench. The birds, if there were any there, were silent. It was remarkable to me how much the character and integrity of the river could change in such as short time and distance. I stood by the bench and listened to the nothing for a while before continuing down the path.

In front of my communion bench, the river was lined with wildflowers; mostly black-eyed susans. Sitting on the bench, facing south, you can watch the river bend west around the island and out of sight. It is a very serene view. It’s a little too much out in the open for my tastes; I’d prefer to be nestled in the trees for the sake of the shade and the comforting and secure embrace of the woods, but then this spot wasn’t really my choice to make.

It was then time for me to turn home…I decided to leave the area beyond the pole bridge that I’d originally planned to explore for another time. On my way back home, as I got to the narrow, cliff-face path by the spillway, I saw on old man trout fishing near the lower falls. There was such tranquility and patience in his every movement that it brought out in me such a feeling of simultaneous envy and delight.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wednesday July 25, 2006

I had tried to go to Kinnikinnic State Park this morning, but when I arrived at around 8:30, the gate was still closed. I thought it was supposed to open at 7 am, but apparently it didn’t. Or the ranger overslept or something. So I turned around and decided to go instead to the bench I was sitting on when I heard Katie communicate with me.

I wound through the streets of suburban affluence, their mammoth tenements sprawling across treeless lots until I came to the unmarked park entrance. This was the same entrance I’d used exactly two months before, on May 25. It briefly flashed in my head that Katie was alive then; in fact, she had a little less than a month to live at that point. I’ve noticed that I’ve begun to separate time periods into before and after Katie now…Which I suppose is pointlessly torturous, but that is the path my brain takes me down…

I quickly entered the woods, ignoring the suspicious stares of the suburbanites tending their lawn. I’d meant to take the main path straight down to the bench, but when I got to the path that branched off and led to the cliff overlooking the river, I was tempted off course. The foliage seemed a bit denser now, despite the two-month drought we’ve been experiencing, and the view of the valley and hills and forest was as spectacular as I remembered.

I eased my may down the steep, twisting path, careful of the loose, gravelly footing, aware that a slip could send me tumbling over the edge. It momentarily occurred to me that maybe I might not be in the right frame of mind to standing on the edge of a cliff this morning, but I packed that thought away and concentrated on my descent. Even from up near the top of the path I could hear the river babbling some fifty feet below. I scanned the edge of the path for the marijuana I thought I’d seen growing there last time I was here, but I couldn’t find it. Probably a good thing, I assured myself. That’s part of what kept me from getting closer to Katie, after all.

I got to the huge boulder at the cliff’s edge and it looked a little out of place…had it moved? I suppose it will fall, someday. Hopefully no one will be down there when it does. I leaned on it ever so lightly, testing its solidity and steadfastness; it didn’t budge.

Looking out over the picturesque valley, my mind drifted and I found myself looking back on my morning. I woke this morning from a dream; a dream about Katie. It was the first dream I’d had about her since her death, and I’d been dreading it for the past month or so. I’m not sure what was worse, dreaming about her or the odd guilt I felt for not dreaming about her for so long…

In my dream, I was out in a wide open space; it sort of reminded me of a parking lot, and there were bookshelves along one edge of the space. I was there with thousands of people. Katie was there too, and I was aware of her being there, but I didn’t have the chance to speak to her for a long time. In this dream, she had not died. She would talk with one person or group of people for a while, and then move on to the next person, and so on. Eventually, she came to me. We hugged. I looked her in her beautiful eyes and told her I knew how she felt, and that she could, in fact, should come over and visit me anytime she wanted to. That I loved her company and that it was always a treat to talk to her. We bantered back and forth playfully for awhile, and then hugged again before we walked off together, my arm over her shoulder. I really felt that I’d made a breakthrough with her; like she was on the brink of despair and I’d brought her back, and that everything was going to be all right.

Then I woke up.

I was instantly upset and depressed at the false hope my subconscious had given me. I decided then that I would grab some tissues and head for Katie’s Spot in the state park. Which, of course, turned out to be closed. Which then brought me here, standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down with tears welling in my eyes, thinking about my dead friend.

Now, I don’t mean to mislead…I never even considered the possibility of jumping. This was just a stupid exercise in fantasy. I even did a little fantasy exercise where I acted like I was going to jump; going through the motions, contracting the muscles, confident that my instincts would not allow it, because I knew deep down that jumping off a cliff to my death was certainly not what I wanted…then it occurred to me that this was, in all likelihood, a ritual that Katie herself indulged in from time to time, and I decided to back off from the cliff, and I climbed back up the steep path.

When I was up where the path leveled off on flat ground, I began to head back towards the main path, when a westbound path caught my eye. I remembered seeing it both of the other times I’d been here, but I’d decided not to explore it those times. I couldn’t pass it up a third time, and I walked it, first into a little patch of forest, then out into the open. After around a hundred feet, I saw a fire pit off to my right. A rust-colored moss was growing out of the ashes; it had obviously been quite a while since the last fire was lit there.

The trail continued down a gradual slope, but the steepness increased the further the path went. I noticed that in this big clearing, there were a whole lot of stumps. The stumps ranged from over a foot to only an inch in diameter, and they looked fresh…less than a year old for sure. I wondered why all these trees would’ve been cut down. A disease, maybe?

Before long, the path grew as steep and twisty as the one that led to the cliff I’d just been on. And as I came around a large outcropping, I noticed to my surprise that I was standing on top of another cliff. Down below, there was the river…and another fire pit.

There were so many trees and shrubs growing on and around the cliff that I couldn’t quite tell where I was. I saw the path also went over to the right; a tight little pass through some trees and I went to check it out to see if I could get some further clues as to my whereabouts. I’d just ducked under some trees and was heading down the tiny trail when I hear some voices and froze, as is my instinct. Through the trees, I was facing west, and I could see two figures walking south. I was sure they couldn’t see me, as my clothes were dull and natural colored, and I could only barely track them by their voices and their bright white clothing.

They had moved past me, and I was about to move down the path again, when they doubled back and started coming back towards me. It was then when I realized where I was. The two men were coming up the steep, wide path where I’d first discovered that I could scale a step path easily by “falling up the mountain” (cross-reference to fall/winter in beginning). Which meant that the cliff I’d originally been standing on, which I had assumed was the cliff I could see from the pole bridge that crossed the river, I’d never actually seen from below. I almost laughed out loud. Like I’ve mentioned, it’s always a surprise when we unmask our assumptions as falsehoods. I kept my laughter to myself, however, until the men were gone.

Once they had passed, I scurried down the little path and walked around the corner and headed towards then bench along side the river. I took off my shoes and socks and sat in a half-lotus position, just like last time. Then I just sat there and watched the river flow, not really feeling anything. I wanted so much to feel something, some sadness, but there was nothing. My mind wandered again, and I reflected on how often it is that I will experience something, even some mundane thing like a red-winged blackbird’s song or the long prairie grass waving in the breeze, and I’ll just be struck with how much Katie would’ve appreciated this simple thing, this one moment in time. How could she kill herself, how, when she could delight in such simplicity? It made no sense to me. It gnawed away at me.

After a few minutes of these thoughts in this quiet atmosphere, the tears did begin to flow, for the first time in days…it felt so good to have that feeling back. I wondered if that was the sign of some problem I had, or if it was just part of the grieving. I’ve heard that this is when the real grieving takes place…at a time when everyone else seems to be over it; when everyone thinks that you should be over it, too.

A jogger ran by behind me, snapping me back into the here-and-now. I put my shoes and socks back on and started back to my car. On my way back, I stopped at both cliffs again. The landscapes at the bottom of those cliffs do look pretty similar, I thought to myself, it was an easy mistake to make, and I smiled to myself. I felt a little better after my cry.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Thursday July 13, 2006

Today I went to the upper falls, to a trail accessed through a hole in a chain link fence. The trail ran down a narrow grade for a very short while before coming to a cliff-top overview of the lower part of Glen Park. I’d been here once before, and then only briefly, around sunset, and I’d come back to explore the little path that run along the cliff face to the south of the overview. The last time I was here, I saw a heron sitting on the peninsula down by the river, but he wasn’t there today.

I went through the dense foliage and made my way down the path along the cliff. It was necessary to use hands to grab tree trunks and vines and roots that protruded from the cliff face to keep balance. As was the case with most of these narrow paths, the footing was loose and treacherous and required focus. But that is what I love so much about these paths…they allow you to slip into a zone and let your instincts and intuitions carry you; something that most people never ordinarily find the time to do. As a result, they start to lose touch with whom and what they are, and then start to feel ambivalent, uncomfortable, or even rigorously opposed to the situation when it does come up in their lives.

The narrow path traced down the cliff face, and then switched back where it came to a street water runoff. The runoff area of the cliff was not nearly as steep as the rest of the cliff…it had probably been erodes for some time by the water. The area also had a bunch of concrete poured down its face, cementing all the rocks and trees in place; to prevent further erosion, I suspect. I switched back with the path, which required me to lower myself down off of a huge limestone slab down to a small grouping of small pieces of limestone jutting out of the cliff some two or three feet below. The vines growing on the cliff face were a big help. I tested the stability of the limestone below gently with my foot. Luckily, they were solid; otherwise, I’d have been left hanging with quite a struggle on my hands to get back up to the big slab.

The switchback part of the path was just as treacherous as the first part, maybe even a little more so, but it was also farther down the face of the cliff, so the possibility of a slip and fall didn’t seem quite so harrowing. Finally, I made it to the path’s end: a little cove in the cliff was cut out by the waterfall, and above that peaceful little pool, a cave was carved out of the limestone, big enough for maybe two people to crouch in somewhat uncomfortably.

I sat down on a rock that faced the cave. The discovery of this neat little area would have brought me a lot of joy in the past, but now, it failed to move me. I began to wonder if maybe Katie had ruined the woods for me. The silence and solitude I once found so comforting and liberating is now where I am most tormented. She is everywhere…I can’t look at the Swinging Bridge, or the river, or hear the crickets and toads at night without thinking of her. Everything momentary simple pleasure I experience is crushed under the weight her memory brings. I suppose that’s the trouble with being friends with someone with whom you have so much in common...they haunt you everywhere when they are gone. She isn’t just always in my thoughts; she’s become a prism through which I view the world.

I sat facing the back of that cave for a while, emulating Dogen, the Zen master, but I found no peace despite the tranquil setting, and eventually I got up and left. I climbed down to the river bank and crossed the river on a series of rocks sticking out of a shallow part. I walked a cross the island in the river and crossed over rocks at another shallow point, and jumped up onto the west bank of the river, where I was faced with another near sheer cliff face. This cliff also had some paths that traced their way across it, and I climbed one that brought me underneath the Swinging Bridge.

This was a place where teenagers would come at night, and the place was littered with bottles and cans, candy wrappers and empty cigarette packs. It is so hard to see things like this, to see our greatest natural resource treated so callously, and it saps the hope in me.

I sat down and watched the river flow. Under the bridge, the river narrows and encounters many rocks, and gets a little noisy, but in a very calming way. My mind wandered and, as usual, found its way to my dead friend.

Before she died, life to me was like a daytime sky, with clouds, the sun, the moon, and birds; everything easily identifiable and sure. Now it was like the sky at night, with too many stars to count and an overwhelming infinity to it. The last time I saw her alive we talked about the stars…

Tears began to well up again. That is one thing I am certainly grateful to Katie for; she taught me how to cry. Before she died, I hadn’t cried in about 25 years. I wanted to, but something in my psyche wouldn’t let me. Pride, I guess, or machismo…maybe shame or fear. Lately, however, I cried all the time, and it really did help me.

I smiled a little at that. I began thinking now of the good times we’d had, about how funny she was.

“What do you call a black guy who flies a plane?” she asked one day.

“Umm,” I replied, racking my brain for an answer. I knew the correct answer would be funny, but certainly not racist, as she was far too intelligent and sweet a person to be base or mean. What could it be? I thought. I wanted to show her how clever I was.

“A pilot, you racist!” she interrupted, smiling devilishly. I laughed. She was a great person and a great friend.

I thought about the papers and pictures she’d left behind, that Sy had rescued from being deleted. I’d read all of her papers save one, a paper entitled “Aesthetics”. I would very much like to know her thoughts on the subject, as she was so intelligent and also a great artist, but I cannot bring myself to read that paper. I don’t think I ever will. As long as I have that paper, I still have one last new interaction with her. I feel as though once I read it, that will be the true end of my communication with her, and that causes me a great deal of mental anguish.

Footsteps on the bridge, followed immediately by the noon whistle, brought me back to the present. With a sigh, I gathered up my thoughts and stood. I retraced my route, finding the climbing of the steep cliff paths a bit easier than the descent. One of the rocks I stepped on to cross the river was a little wobbly, and I ended up having to leave the stone and stamp my foot clumsily in the river to avoid completely falling in. I took off my shoe, wrung out my sock, and continued on my way.

Up on top of the cliff by the hole in the fence where I had first entered, I looked down. A tall, thin tree grew up over the cliff top; it was hard to believe it was the same tree that looked not so very impressive from down by the cove.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Monday, July 3

This morning I decided to explore Mound Park, which is a well-hidden system of trails just off of Hoffman Park. I walked up the lattice-work, paver block entrance, past the gate, and up the shallow grade of the path. I had traveled this path once before, as I walked west past the cemetery on the trails behind Hoffman Park. Before I got too far, a north-bound trail broke off from the main east-west path, and I chose to explore the unknown rather than continue towards the paths behind Hoffman that I already knew.

It wasn’t long before the path broke back towards the west, but up higher on the hill, about thirty feet above the entrance trail. As I walked, I noticed that it appeared to trace a path around the mountain, which I suppose is more of a very big hill (or mound, if you will) than a mountain. Walking along, I saw another path break north, this one straight up the steepest part of the hill, up towards some exposed sandstone on a ridge near the hilltop. I was tempted to head right up, but figured that I’d just explore it on my way back from wherever this path was taking me.

Soon, I heard the roar of machinery, and through the dense summer growth, I could see the industrial park, which I did not realize was so close. Almost as soon as I realized where I was, the smell of the garbage dump blew in with a strong gust of wind and nearly made me vomit, out of disgust at both the smell itself and at the notion that a major part of this trail system was rendered useless as a result of poor planning. How can one enjoy nature with the constant assault on the senses and sensibilities?

I jogged to set out of the stench, but soon realized that this only made matters worse because I had to gulp down the foul air I was trying to avoid. To make matters worse, I had to run up a steep hill, my lungs requiring even more oxygen than normal running would demand. Eventually, I pulled my shirt up over my nose and mouth to act as a filter, which actually worked pretty well.

The wind had begun to whip pretty furiously now, with trees bending mightily, to the point that I began to worry about them snapping and falling on me. Katie popped into my head again, as she did on at least an hourly basis, and I thought about how much easier it would have been to accept her death as the result of an accident, as opposed to suicide…news of her dying as a result of having a tree fall on her would have been much easier to swallow, I think.

Just this morning, before I came out for my walk, I heard a story on public radio, one that mentioned the suicide of a photojournalist. Apparently, he had seen such horrors in the course of his work; wars, starvation, disease, and the like; and it all weighed on him so much that his work didn’t seem to be making the world any better off. At least that was the Cliff’s Notes version of his story…as the commenter had said, “suicide is always complicated.”

It was the first time since I heard news of Katie that I’d heard suicide discussed in a public forum, and it stung just to hear the word. “Suicide”…far too small a word to contain the swirling tempest of emotions it conjures up. I was now finally to the point where I could get through the day with little to no crying…well, never no crying, but the decreasing amount of crying engendered a sort of guilt; like I was letting her memory go. What would it mean if, a few scant weeks afterwards, we were all well on our way to moving past all this? It seemed like turning my back on her, like I was belittling her profound significance. If we all just got on fine without her, how are we to argue that what she did was really so wrong?

As I continued uphill, more questions swarmed in my head. Upon examining them, I realized they had been buzzing around, not yet intelligibly formed, inside of me for some time now: Why is it that news that was so devastating just a week ago now seemed almost matter of fact? Does time heal all wounds? Do we accept what we cannot change and adjust? Or do we just go numb?

As I crested the steep path, I was faced with the choice of continuing to the left or to the right; I chose right. About fifty feet down the path, I saw a little lean-to constructed of plywood, some sort of meager shelter for when the weather got too much. Standing by the lean-to, I looked to the west and saw a huge round concrete building. There were many pipes sticking out of the top of the structure, painted sky-blue, and it was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Little worn trails ran along the fence, but I decided not to explore those just yet, and instead headed east, wondering if maybe these trails connected with the trails about Hoffman Park.

As it turns out, they did. It occurred to me that the trail system that I had always assumed to be a part of Hoffman was, in fact, actually Mound Park, and that Hoffman was actually just the lower, open part with the playgrounds and ball fields and ice rinks. Names don’t matter much, I suppose, but it’s always a little weird when you find out that your labels are wrong.

Seeing as the wind was still very strong and it looked like rain clouds might be moving in, I decided to head back. My jog past the garbage dump was a little easier this time, as it was all downhill. The garbage smell was offensive, but upon reflection, it occurred to me that maybe it’s not such a very bad thing…I thought that maybe if we could all smell the garbage that produce, we wouldn’t make so much of it.

Soon I was back at the little path that broke off of the main trail and went up to the exposed sandstone. The path was steep and thin and littered with loose rocks, and I attacked it, trying to get up quickly, to let my momentum carry me up. Up on the ridge, I could still smell the garbage. It pissed me off no small amount to see this beautiful site ruined by the stench of our society. I was ready to go home now, feeling disgusted and helpless.

Then I noticed that a very small trail wound its way around a small gap in the sandstone, and, following it, I saw that the hill went up even higher. Now that I was really up on top of the hill, I noticed with relief that I couldn’t smell the garbage anymore, and I saw a lone wild rose growing out of the prairie grass.

Smiling, I turned and headed home.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

June 28

Wed. June 28, 2006

This morning I woke up with Sy and walked her to her work. I don’t think I had ever walked with her to work before, because she is usually running late and I have to drive her in to get her to work on time. I walked with my head down most of the way, sinking more into my depression, still thinking about the day before at Katie’s Spot. Sy tried to cheer me up with kisses on the cheek and hand holding, which worked, but only fleetingly. As soon as her lips left my face, the murkiness, temporarily displaced, returned.

After I had dropped my dear wife off, I planned to return home, but found myself walking over the swinging bridge leading to Glen Park. The bridge was still wet with the morning's condensation. The remnants of a few foot prints and bicycle tire tracks were traced in the water on the bridge. I walked about halfway out over the river before I felt the old familiar bounce of the bridge. I stopped and leaned over the railing at the rushing water below, thinking all the while that this, right here, was where Katie had tried to kill herself before, where she dangled precariously until she chickened out or got interrupted or just thought better of it.

With a deep sigh, I dragged myself from the bridge and down to the lower falls, where I traversed the narrow path by the river as fast as I could. Once past that, I began jogging. I figured I would jog until I was out of the woods and into the clearing. I had hoped that the exercise in the woods would take my mind off of her, however briefly, but it didn’t…I just recalled how she would go jogging in Glen Park every day and how she could scamper up a tree like a squirrel, with so little effort.

Through all these memories, I kept running, maybe hoping to put them behind me in some subconscious way. Just as I was beginning to run out of steam, I came out of the woods into the clearing by the river. I came to a stop with one last solid footfall, and with that, the heron burst into the sky from the river bank where he was standing. All tiredness I had felt left my body for those moments as it lifted into the sky and away replaced with awe for its grandeur and remorse for having disturbed the beautiful bird with my loutishness.

Once the heron was out of view, I walked over to the bench next to the river, removing my sweatshirt on the way. Upon arriving there, I realized I had had it in my mind to sit here all along, but I’d not really consciously thought about it. After scanning the bench, I determined that the only thing filthy on the bench was what had been primitively etched into it by stoned teenagers, and it would be fine to sit there for a while.

I sat down on the bench, then removed my shoes, pulled my legs up and sat half lotus style. I sat there for a few moments, thinking about how unkind I had been to Katie. There are so few people in this world I feel a real connection with…beyond my wife and Katie, I’d have trouble naming any. And yet I regarded her so casually, dismissing, almost belittling, her frequent suicide attempts. Had my wife tried anything like that even once I would have forcefully intervened. But with Katie, I did the least that I could do.

I continued to sit in a meditative posture, watching the water flow around the rocks in the river. The water was so beautiful; it seemed to embrace the rocks as it slipped by. Tears began to well up in my eyes, and I removed my glasses, setting them next to me on the bench. “I’m sorry, Katie” I gushed under my now heaving breath, quietly as I could because even all alone in the middle of the woods I’m still self-conscious. “I’m so sorry.” I started to reach for the Kleenex that I had been carrying around with me ever since her memorial service, and then stopped.

“I know,” I heard her say in my head.

I didn’t, of course, hear her per se, as this was all taking place within my skull, and her voice, for lack of a better word, didn’t sound like Katie really. It seemed deeper than hers, and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. They had a resonance was so slight I could only perceive it because I was sitting so still in such a peaceful place. It was almost like a voice that you experience when you are imagining a conversation with someone, but this voice had feeling to it, more three- than two-dimensional. I felt it in my whole body.

I was about to tell her that I wished more than anything that I had done more to help her, but she cut me off, reassuringly saying, “You’re a good person.”

My tears kept flowing, but now they felt more like ones of relief and gratitude than of sorrow. Those six words lifted the weight of the world off of me…Katie forgave me. Or maybe it’s seven…I don’t know if contractions count as two words or one.

I sat there is silence for a while, too emotional to do anything else. “Thank you,” I finally managed to get out, “Thank you Katie.” There was no response. I sat for a time, waiting, hoping, for more communication, but I heard no more.

I had sat in Katie’s spot for over an hour and a half yesterday, pouring my heart out and longing desperately for some sort of answer, but got nothing. I was despondent. I was inconsolable. Now I could breathe again.

Now, I am skeptical, even full of doubt, and as I got up from the bench and started walking home, I tried to deconstruct this event in my mind. I tried to reproduce the voice in my head I had experienced. I tried to find a way to explain it away. But so ethereally keen was the experience that the closest I could come to a dismissal was that Katie, to me, and not a few others, seemed a kindred spirit. We had so much in common from our world views to our passions to our senses of humor. In fact, the more I find out about her, the more I’m sure we were destined to be two peas in a pod…but I guess that destiny only accounts for so much in this life. But maybe through this kinship of this kindred spirit, I know, deep down, that Katie would forgive me.

Although I cannot really know what it was I experienced by the river today, now I am more sure than ever that there is Something Going On.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

June 27

I pulled into Kinnikinnic State Park, and as I pulled up to the ranger station, the park ranger stuck his head out and gave an enthusiastic “Good Morning!” He seemed to be genuinely delighted to see me, which gave me some comfort on a day I was beginning to face with more and more trepidation.

I had decided the day before to visit a spot at the park that was Katie’s favorite in the world. Figuring if her spirit were still in this realm, that would be one of the more likely spaces to interact with it, I intended to sit down and have a good long talk with her, letting out in audible speech all the thoughts and feelings that had been swirling around in my head for the past few days. My depression and guilt had been worsening, and I thought that this would help. It had certainly gotten me through yesterday, as I was able to tell all the awful feelings in my brain to wait until tomorrow, wait until tomorrow.

I piloted my car down the serpentine park road, feeling like a ghost, shutting out all conscious thought, wanting my words to flow out as naturally and organically as possible when the time was right; no premeditated speeches. I kept telling all the nagging thoughts that kept bubbling up to sit down again; that I was going to trust myself in this exercise. As I drove out of the rolling plains and under the canopy of the forest, I ignored the darkening somberness building in my gut, placing myself in a near out-of-body state. Finally arriving at the parking area where the road dead ends, I parked, grabbed my water bottle and a pack of tissues, and set out for Katie’s Spot.

On my way to the path, I noticed that a large white tent was set up among the tall oaks in the picnic area. Several circular tables sat underneath the tent, each with four to six folding chairs placed around them. Beside the tent sat four shiny aluminum garbage cans and a long folding table. The folding table was empty, save for a big roll of the same white material that the tent was made out of. There’s something eerie about seeing such emptiness in a large area set up for a party.

Her spot was at the bottom of a twisty path on a steep, wooded hill. Large and small chunks of well-weathered sandstone stuck out along the path, which were helpful footholds, but you had to be careful as some of them were loose and setting your weight on them would lead to a long, painful tumble down the jagged slope. It was definitely a challenge requiring attention and effort, and knowing that Katie must’ve gotten the same thrill out of it that I did made me smile through my welling tears as I made my way down to the base of the hill.

The path down ended at a small clearing, one that was occasionally covered by the river when it overflowed with excessive rain or the spring melt, but now was dry and home to many scampering chipmunks. I sat down on a large boulder, right above the level of the water line marked on the trees that were growing in the flat basin. The shallow Kinnikinnic River flowed by me, just past the clearing about 30 feet away. All of the sounds that emanated from the surrounding forest were animal in origin; I was the only human there. I sat for a couple of minutes, taking in the surroundings, then all at once all the emotion I’d been repressing for the past few hours sprang forth.

“Katie…Katie, I…Katie,” I sobbingly sputtered, “I miss you so much!”

I reached into my pocket for the tissues, knocking my water bottle off of the rock where I had set it beside me. It bounced down a few feet, clunking off of the rocks with a solid yet distorted sound. The chipmunks that had gathered curiously around me scattered. I left the bottle to lay there.

I couldn’t go on for about a minute or so; every attempt at speech resulted in another emotional breakdown. I went through three tissues before I was able to haltingly continue.

I told her that she was beautiful, in every sense of the word. I told her that she was an inspiration to me, and that there was so much that I had admired about her. I told her that it was difficult and painful to speak about her in the past tense. I wished I had had more time with her, and that I felt robbed because we were just beginning to really become friends, and that I felt a little stupid to be so deep in my sorrow, as there were many people to whom she was much closer. Of course, I said, someone doesn’t have to know you long to become attached to and fond of you, Katie.

Then I talked to her about her memorial service that had been this past Saturday. Just walking into the funeral home and seeing her name up in all capital white letters pressed onto the black felt board…it felt like a sharp jab to the gut and brought tears to my eyes. Seeing your beloved violin resting in its open case next to your ashes was like another punch; not one to the gut but deeper, right to the heart. I told Katie that I noticed her ashes were in two vases, presumably to be split between her divorced parents, and I told her that I thought it deeply, darkly, ironic, even almost funny that even in death they are still pulling her in separate directions.

One of her former professors shared a story, saying that when he heard you had died, he hadn’t felt that way since 9/11. “Remember when the next few days there were no planes in the sky at all?” he asked us. He said that was the same eerie feeling he had as after he’d heard about your death. I told Katie that I could just see her rolling her big bright eyes at the mention of 9/11 at your funeral, and that it also occurred to me that, like me, you probably found the empty skies wonderful and serene rather than eerie.

And I told Katie that her former boyfriend had shared the most touching story of the service. He had walked meekly up to the microphone and spoke in a hushed whisper; everyone had to strain and even hold their breath to hear him, but we were hanging on his every word. He told the story of the night that you and he were camping and saw a couple of loons out on the lake. You shared one life vest between you, and you switched back and forth, one treading water while the other rested on the vest, and you swam out towards the loons, and you got so very close to them. Out there in the still clear night, under the stars, floating in the water, he whispered, is when he fell in love with nature, but everyone knew what he really meant to say is that is when he fell in love with you.

I told Katie that Sylvana had found some of her old schoolwork on the computer at the library, and that some well-meaning but misguided friends of hers had tried to delete them. Luckily, they were saved. One of the items was a portrait of herself, in a white lacy gown, sitting on the floor, slumped against the wall, with a peaceful countenance on her face. Blood was pooled on her gown and splattered and smeared on the wall. Her relaxed, opened hand was on the floor beside her, and resting in it was a gun, on the verge of softly, finally slipping out and coming to rest. Given the horrible fact of her suicide it was disturbing to look at for sure, but you could see the obvious artistic genius that went into it. It was so haunting, beautiful and sad.

I told her that I’d read a couple of her papers, and that her personality sparkled throughout one in particular. It was obvious she had most likely written it in a hurry, probably the night before it was due. I told her she was so funny.

Then I told her about my suicide attempt. It had been several years earlier, long before I had met Katie. I had taken Tylenol PM, around 16 of them, before I had decided it was a mistake and that I didn’t want to die after all. I went to the bathroom and threw up a green goop which I assumed was bile. It was obvious that quite a bit of the medication had already entered my system, and I spent the rest of the night dragging my heavy feet through the house, pacing, trying to stay awake. I kept saying, “I don’t want to die,” over and over to myself. And keeping me company during that night, with me every step of the way, were my angels. At this point in my story I stopped and watched a deer walk across the small island in front of me, and once it disappeared, I continued.

They did not look like traditional angels you might see in pictures in a church, I told her, they were more like form constants, the kind of shapes you might see after taking mushrooms or acid. I was aware that they were most likely a manifestation of my brain due to the medication and stress, but still they comforted me. I knew that they would be there to take care of me and see me through my time of need. And I told Katie that I hoped that she had met these angels to help her as her life ended, and that they were much comfort to her.

At this point an entire family of deer walked in front of me on the small island, traveling in the opposite direction of the single deer I had seen earlier. Again, I paused and was silent until they were out of sight.

Finally, then, once again bursting out sobbing, I told Katie that I was sorry. I was so sorry…so sorry I didn’t talk to her and help her more, so sorry I ignored her problems, hoping you were getting better. I told her I was worried that I wouldn’t get past this grief and this guilt, and that I was sorry. I was so, so sorry. Katie, I’m so sorry.

I sat on the boulder a while, just listening and waiting. I don’t know what it was I expected all of this to accomplish. Maybe some closure, maybe some relief, maybe some answer from Katie, but noting was forthcoming. After I had finished crying on last time, I picked up my water bottle and all of my used tissues and trudged back up hill and to my car, exhausted and empty-feeling.

Friday, June 30, 2006

June 19

June 19
I woke up feeling surprisingly well, considering how much I had had to drink the previous night. Word had gotten to us yesterday that a good friend, Katie, had killed herself in a particularly gruesome manner on Friday night. She was such a unique and great person. She struggled with finding the point to life; like so many she fell to one of the two extremes with regards to what, exactly, life means. She rightly perceived that there is, in the end, no real point to life. I’m sure one could rightly argue that there is a point, and it is to pass on your genes, but such a non-cerebral pursuit is hardly satisfying to those seeking something profound.

But on the other hand, any life is extremely meaningful, and in fact, has whatever meaning and significance you choose to bring to it. The cold fact of Katie’s passing this mortal coil has brought such suffering to so many people shows that on some level her life held so much more meaning than she ever conceived it could.

Katie’s death shook some of my confidence in my convictions, and caused me, in the early stages of grief, to revisit the thoughts and ideas (and the feelings that those thoughts and ideas generate) I have regarding life and death, and that kept me up for a good deal of the previous night. I struggled with duality, what I had thought of as a sort of dynamic tension between a deeply ingrained human (or perhaps animal) will to survive and our other deeply ingrained instinct to relieve suffering. It occurred to me that I, too, was falling into the mistaken notion that this duality was two things. But the desire to survive and the desire to end suffering are really two human differentiations of the same thing. You survive because of what you fear or suffer, and you suffer because you live with the fear of losing life (impermanence), and because of the human tendency to transpose our being upon our possessions, we can actually see losing certain parts or aspects or impermanent features as threats to our actual being.

All of this was racing through my mind last night, and into this morning, so I thought that a walk through the woods might do some good for me. The weather was cool and mild, with a layer of clouds to prevent the sun from beating down and sending the summer insects into a frenzy. I chose to go to the woods above Hoffman Park, probably because it bordered a cemetery, and of course death and morbidity was much on my mind at the moment.

As I pulled into the parking lot, it started to sprinkle. I looked at the sky again to see if I had maybe misjudged the contents and intentions of the clouds, but they looked fairly thin and light, and I felt fairly certain that a sprinkle was the worst the weather would get; worse, of course, being a relative term, presuming there is something wrong with getting wet—a concept which I learned back at the stumps was bullshit.

By the time I had reached the entrance to the woods the precipitation had stopped and the sun broke out from behind the cloud cover, shining with noticeable heat and intensity, but within the woods it was still cool. As I was entering the woods, a woman and her dog were leaving. Both were very friendly and wished me a good morning, which I returned wholeheartedly.
As I entered the woods, I heard ominous-sounding cries of crows and blue jays rather than the calls of red-winged blackbirds and robins that encompassed me down by the river. I wasn’t but a few steps into the woods when I noticed that the vegetation along the edges of the path was chewed to shreds. I noticed one small tree at first, and examined it closely…I couldn’t think of any animal that would chew up a tree quite in that fashion. Then I saw that all the trees along the path showed similar damage and figured that the park department must have come through to groom the paths to keep them from being overgrown.

I walked on down the path, wondering if, when I got to the fork in the path, if I would turn right and go up the hill deeper into the woods or if I’d take a left and wonder around down by the cemetery. The mere thought of the cemetery got me thinking of Katie again, of course. I hoped that she would be laid to rest in that particular one, so that I might visit her on some of my walks, and then immediately thought myself selfish. In fact, it occurred to me, gravestones and cemeteries really are, in the end, for the living. Anything that was Katie is long gone now…gravestones give our brains something to deal with besides abstract concepts such as impermanence.

At the fork, I turned left and went uphill as the idea struck me to construct a makeshift monument to her by stacking some rocks. I’d never talked to her about rock stacking, although I’d been meaning to, and now never will, but I have a feeling she would have thought it was cool. The specifics of the plan had not gelled in my mind, and rather than overthink it, I thought I’d just let the whole experience unfold as organically as possible, being sure that’s how Katie’d want it.

I walked uphill for a while, past the crumbling sandstone of the natural retaining wall that was carved out of the hillside. Near the top of the hill, there is an outer ring which, I believe, goes around he hilltop, and within that outer ring, an inner ring that traces around the hilltop a little farther up. When I got to the outer ring, I was faced with the prospect of going left or right, and I chose right. Only about ten paces down this path, I spied a small trail going up a steep incline off the main path. I went straight up it without delay.

The short, steep path went nearly straight up about eight to ten feet, then crested and dipped down a foot or two. Then it lead a very short way to a small fire pit. It did not appear to have been used recently; there were no ashes in it, and three small paths radiated off of it, each about 120 degrees from each other. The area was very small, and seemed to have a sort of mystical aura about it.

Standing in this confined room in the middle of the woods, I wondered if Katie had ever been to this spot. In all likelihood, she had. The spot was secluded and very quiet, as it sat so far above the main path, and I was struck with the idea that I should stack some rocks here, as a sort of monument in her honor, some thing that I could return to, focus on, and even maintain as a memorial.

I went to build the stack on the westward path radiating off of the fire pit, and soon saw that it was less of a path and more of a small room. It was an ideal location for the stack, sort of out of the way (the stack location was difficult to see even from the pit a few feet away as it was obstructed by vegetation), and with a nice little space to sit and reflect.

I hurriedly gathered up a few loose rocks and set them up. Looking at them, something seemed wrong, and I decided it was the haste and lack of attention to detail that went into it’s construction. I unstacked the stones and left the fire pit, getting back down on the main path, determined to walk around thinking about the stack and its meaning, and to find appropriate stones for its construction.

While walking, I decided that the large stone I had used as a base for the original stack was good and proper…it was big and had a nice growth of moss that I was sure Katie would have liked. Along the path, I came upon a small upheaval of dirt, and in the dirt was a piece of sandstone with a v-shaped notch out of it; it sort of looked like the walking man or a ‘k’, and I deemed it appropriate for my project and picked it up, carrying it along as I continued down the path.

Later I came to part of the path where, on the left side, the hill rose sharply, and had been eroded away a little, exposing a substrate of sandstone rocks that resembled a crumbling retention wall. I noticed one of the rocks, small and thin, had the impression of a leaf on it. I picked it up and went on up the trail.
Soon I was at the top of the hill, on the inner circle path, and walked westward past all the deciduous trees until I came into a grouping of pines. Here, a small path darted off the main one, headed into the center of the inner circle path.

The small path lead to a campground with a fire pit which was surrounded by rocks and logs for sitting. There was a cushion of dry pine needles on the ground. A few paces away was a nice stack of firewood. This fire pit didn’t seem to have been used lately either. I was pretty sure that Katie had been here in the past, and I stepped with reverence around the site. Then, I thought, it was time to go and finish my work. (include other sites w/ birch cross and lean-to?)

I followed the main trail back to the site I had chosen earlier, where I started stacking. First, I put down the base rock, the big one with the moss and a rounded top, on top of which I placed a thin, flat rock that I’d gotten from the fire pit. Next I laid down the rock with the leaf imprint. I set the rock I’d taken from the upheaval and put it on the leaf imprint rock, but a little off center, and on that I balanced an awkwardly shaped but nonetheless beautiful stone, standing on its edge.

When it was completed, I took a step back and looked at it. I still wasn’t sure if I liked it, but it was made out of rocks I was sure Katie would have liked. It was also unstable, like her. I think her instability contributed to her beauty. Her instability, her fragileness, her frailty…all these things that some might consider imperfections or flaws, these are what made her a truly beautiful person.

I knelt there, on the soft forest floor, contemplating these things about her, when I noticed a low whine of machinery in the distance, one that kept getting closer and louder. I tried to ignore it and concentrate on Katie, but soon the noise was so much I couldn’t hear myself think. A chipmunk suddenly darted out of its hiding place, not more than three feet away from where I was kneeling down. I only saw it as a blur; it was gone so fast. It must have been hunkered down, anxiously waiting for me to finish my rock stacking, so it could get on with its life. I smiled to myself, realizing that I, too, am going to have to get on with my life at some point. But for now, I think I’ll have to try to be patient with my grief.

After the path-clearing thrasher had gone by, I got up and left the small secluded site.

I was walking down the path, thinking I’d leave the way I entered, when I heard a series of sharp, quick buzzes. At first I assumed that the noise came from the machinery that had just been by, but then I caught sight of a moth fluttering frantically on the path. I’d never heard a moth buzz before, so I knelt down for a closer look.

Once I got down to the moth’s level, I saw that it was so frantic because it was being attacked by a bee. In all my walks through the woods, I can recall countless butterflies and moths jittering by me and thousands of bees buzzing furiously past me, sometimes hitting me at full speed, angrily intimidating this creature about a millions times their size, but I hadn’t seen this hunting, this death, that I came across on this day when I was most able to witness it with such gut-wrenching empathy. The moth was obviously in its death throes, staggering, already dumb under the spell of the venom. I sat and watched for a few minutes, rooting for the moth to find some reserve strength and escape, but I knew better, of course. I tried to take a couple of pictures, out of some sense of need to document morbidity in the physical realm, but soon the bee knew the moth was done for and focused on me as his most pressing threat, stabbing at me in a series of unnerving aerial maneuvers. I backed off more a good couple minutes before racing past the now motionless moth.

I arrived at the fork in the path at the base of the hill, but instead of turning left and exiting the woods the way I had entered them, I proceeded down towards the cemetery. When I got to where the path exited the woods by the cemetery, I stopped short upon seeing a small gathering in the graveyard. It didn’t seem to be a funeral, as the grouping of people seemed casual and informal, and there was no hearse or coffin. Some of the people gathered were obviously somber, however, as they hugged and shook hands reassuringly.

Off on the edge of the cemetery, obscured from view from the group of people there, but visible to me, was a large pile of dirt, dark as if it was a little wet. This, I surmised, was where they put your dirt when they dug your grave. I fantasized that this was Katie’s family checking out a plot for their daughter, that this was her dirt, but I had never met anyone in her family, and I had no real clue whom these people were. Inside I knew that this was a stupid, self-serving fantasy; after all, other people do die.