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.