This moment. This exact one. No other.
No yesterday, tomorrow, mañana, or anon. This moment.
All that ever is or was, could’ve or might’ve or even should’ve been,
all that never was and now never will be?
Is here, right now. In this single moment.
To breathe, to know with all cells and beyond what it is just to be, simply alive.
Some creatures show up here with outsized charisma, and this going-on-eight-now pup is one of them. Every day reaffirms the point: going for a walk with Sexy Louis is like taking a rock star for a walk on a leash. People stop and stare and point and smile and ooo and aaa, and astonishing numbers of them speak to him and me and want to pet him and croon to him and just be in his presence.
Oh, what an adorable|cute|gorgeous puppy! What is he? Are the most common opening lines.
He’s all mutt, I always say. Nearly eight. And comely as any rock star.
What is his name? And can I pet him? Are the most common subsequent questions.
Yes, of course, and Sexy Louis, which he chose for himself. I tried a slew of names on him during the first couple weeks he lived with us, and he ignored them all clean, didn’t so much as look my way. Then one night we watched an episode of A Year in Provence—the VHS, not the shortened DVD version—and there’s a pool guy on it called Sexy Louis. So when we headed to bed, I said, I think I’ll just call you Sexy Louis. And he leapt and bounded happily to me, around and around the room and then throwing himself into my lap, and that was that. Sexy Louis he is. Just Louis for the churched. But Sexy Louis for the rest of us.
Beyond those lines, the conversations diverge into interesting paths. Some guess at his genetics; some want to know where I got him (from an Amish family); some want to share their memories of dogs recently lost and remembered more sharply in Louis’ presence. At least one person a day offers to babysit or walk or even adopt him, should I ever be so inclined. Piano tuners, electricians, wait-staff, professors, ordinary folks just passing in the street, you name it: more than any other dog I’ve been adopted by, Louis (pronounced LOO ee) is the one people want to take home for themselves.
This started the first week he lived with us, way back in November of 2006, with an employer who wanted him so badly—“you can just go get another,” she said to me repeatedly—that she took my refusal as a sign of disrespect. What I couldn’t say without giving more offense was that Louis was terribly anxious that he not be left with her (or anyone else at that point, and it hasn’t changed too much since): he’s head over all four heels and one tail madly in love with me, and wants no one else. (He loves his dad, too, but not in the same all-out manner as mom. Our hearts are simply intertwined for good.) He is friendly, though, to the point of easily convincing passersby and friends alike that maybe, just maybe they could take him home. For my part, it is the same: I am friendly to all, but not take-homeable, for my circle of loved ones is tiny. I love the world, yes, all of it—every last jot, every last soul, every last being and blade of grass and rock—but I come to rest in the eddies of my days with a rare few, among whom Sexy Louis has been since the moment our eyes first connected in that cold November wind.
How is it that we can come alongside one another on a planet of many billions of beings and simply fit? What serendipity exists in this realm that allows such connections? If there is any grace to be had here, surely that must be among the first. This small dog is my teacher, dashing through his days expressing himself fully, unguardedly to the world, bearing the genetic injury that now causes him pain (four herniated vertebral disks) with no little joie de vivre, leaping and pirouetting still at the least excuse or none at all, even though it hurts. When the injury first showed up this summer, we went through two weeks of limited movement (and no walks), and I made up my mind to stop his lifelong habit of jumping. I put my whole will into it, too, for several days, before it hit me hard that I was off-path. Bad.
What a soul-killing human conceit it is, this belief that we have the right to curtail movement that threatens life just because we want to extend said life as long as possible. How gut-wrenching it would be for him to suddenly die with me—the person he loves best on this planet—having spent 70 percent of our communication prior to that moment saying No, Louis. Don’t jump! Feet on the floor. Easy. Just walk. No leaping! Louis arrived in our lives as a bouncy little effervescent bundle of fur and happy curiosity about everything. Shall I strip him of his primary ways of expressing the joy of being solely so I might be able to keep him here a bit longer?
There is something ragged and scary about taking the safe path home. Even the words—no, don’t jump—feed the bone-shaking fear that an end comes too soon for us all and that, while this in itself is a good thing, especially for the planet, being left behind by those we adore is the rub. The lonely stretch of pathless path that all humans walk. The last time I said No, don’t jump, though, I realized that I was asking this little dog to be a scared version of a person instead of himself, and I stopped and stared at him for long seconds, his little ears perked and head turned to see what was going on with mom. I vowed then to stop it. Out loud.
We all live until we die, and then we die and are done with it. Why take the safe path when it is reliably so grim and unlively? Why would I choose for Louis to not live so that I can feel less fear about losing him . . . as we both march straight on to our graves? The discs could rupture at any time, leap or not. Why not let him do what his spirit urges him to do and what his body tells him is good? Why not let him be while he is actually here?
And so I have made that vow, again and again, and kept it mostly since then. He leaps slightly less now, I believe, and sometimes he whimpers with pain. Some mornings he waits and lets me lift him down off the bed, but on most he still doesn’t. With my ‘no’ commands laid aside, though, he and I are well embarked on just being while here. There is an ease about living with death as a teacher and mentor and friend. Today—this exact moment, to be more precise—is all any of us are promised and when it ends, so be. This is one of the many lessons Sexy Louis keeps teaching me. This, and also how much fun it is to take a rock star for a walk on a leash.
A few days ago, still on my way from the desert to the sea, I was rolling along in a pack of vehicles feeling hot and tired and ready for sleep but hours from it yet. We were making about 70 mph or so, steady on all, following too close for comfort, but settled into that routine and aiming for the Lackawanna toll booths on a New York pay road that wasn’t near lonely enough for my liking. Suddenly I saw a car stopped on the right shoulder and then up the hill from that a tall young man yanking on the back heel of a deer whose foot was stuck on the top line of a heavy-gauge field fence. Nine things went through my head simultaneously and hit a looping replay, in the manner of life-and-death coming down:
Must stop. He clearly doesn’t have the right tool for the job. Must stop safely. Signal, get off, get as far into the ditch as possible so I don’t cause a pile-up and wind up in the middle of an ER somewhere. Then back up closer so I don’t have so far to run. Get my Leatherman, it’s got pliers with wire cutters. Where is my backpack? Woman in a long citified dress and Crocs leaps a low ditch and heads up a steep bank, heavy weeds knee-high, and holding out an open Leatherman to the young man. Dear god, it’s hot.
He was beside himself by the time he saw me coming, having run once again to his car, clearly looking for a tool while I backed up toward him as far off the road as I could get, shaking his head and hands in dismay, and then slamming the trunk lid and running back up the hill to the fence. The deer just hung there, her front feet not able to touch the ground but pawing frantically toward it just the same. When he finally realized I was coming to help (I shouted, “Do you need a Leatherman?”), he ran toward me and took the knife, out of breath, saying thanks with his whole body, words not needed. He reached the deer before me, but not by much, and then just stood there panting.
The fawn still had spots, but she was close to losing them and large for her age. One back hoof was trapped, almost as if she’d started over, somehow kicked off on that upper line, and then flipped to the other side with her leg caught between the metal fencing. Her ankle was bleeding, swollen, and not going anywhere unless we could cut the fence free. I grabbed her upper leg with my left hand to keep her from falling when the fence was cut and nodded at the man: he clipped the top wire, and stepped back, unnerved. Blood stained my left palm, oozing out from where I was holding onto her. The other piece of the wire was embedded in her ankle and wouldn’t let go, though, so I held fast with my left hand and, with my right, bent the wire back out of the way. Then I eased her gently down to her side of the fence and stood back myself, also unnerved.
The deer floundered, trying to get up and away, not trusting that the tall fence between us was enough cover even from we two who had helped her. The young man, breathing hard and handing me back my knife, said, It may be broken. Maybe, I replied, but I don’t think so. I didn’t feel any obvious breaks. They’re pretty tough at this stage. We used to raise orphaned deer on our farm. If she can get settled down some, get that leg back under her and rest a bit, she might make it.
I was convincing myself as much as anyone, watching her lurch and struggle into the undergrowth, hoping against hope that her mother would still be nearby or that, if not, the baby would rest and then be able to go on. If I could’ve cleared the fence, I’d have dragged her into my car and headed for the nearest veterinarian, but the fence was considerable, and neither my dress nor my shoes were up for crossing it.
We watched her take cover and then a few seconds later turned back to our vehicles. Still out of breath, he said, I always carry my Leatherman in my car, but this is my sister’s and she doesn’t have anything in it! I thought to myself that this young man could’ve passed for one of my students and replied, Well, you stopped and you helped and you did what you could. That’s the best any of us can do. Thank you for that.
He thanked me, too, and then we both got back on the road, me driving more slowly and more carefully than before. A few miles on traffic tied up bad, so I exited the highway and tried to wait out the accident up ahead. Two hours later, I finally and reluctantly got back on the road, inching along with a whole new set of vehicles. Stopped mostly, for long minutes sometimes before we’d inch forward for a few more feet, stopped long enough between inchings that we struck up conversations between cars—a young woman in the back seat of an SUV noticed my Wisconsin plates and wanted to talk about the state she missed and I’d just left. When highway trucks began trying to clear out the left lane, coming up from behind, I made space for the cars on my left to merge. This annoyed a white van full of white boys from Virginia directly behind me, and they let me know it complete with the word ‘bitch’ a few times. I shook my head and ignored them, determinedly making a space for the other lane to merge (which is the only smart thing to do near an accident site, especially when highway crews are flashing their lights and trying to get drivers to merge).
Neither the van nor the SUV noticed the vehicles coming up on the far left roadway well behind us: they both ignored them clean: the SUV didn’t merge, despite having plenty of room, and the white van very nearly passed me before suddenly seeing the highway trucks claiming that lane. The first truck, dwarfing my own, finally drove up alongside me; another one took the far left shoulder and ran ahead of the SUV and three other cars that weren’t merging and cut them off (with a blinking merge light bar then directly facing everyone between the truck beside me and that one, all in that left lane). I waved one hand at the SUV, motioning that they were free to merge, but they kept on driving between the two trucks, clearly unaware of accident protocols (clear the lanes closest to the accident to avoid further problems). The boys in the van stopped shouting the B word, but they kept revving their engines, ticked off at the delay. The driver of the highway truck beside me nodded at me, acknowledging as I have done many a time in emergency situations, any person that isn’t making the job harder.
Finally we came to the accident site itself, first evident in personal items slung alongside the center grassy section to the left of the highway. For more than a city block, the clothes and papers and food items from the passengers in the vehicle lay forgotten, now unneeded. The car itself had flipped and gone into a stand of trees on its side and my breath went still for a few seconds, recognizing the make and model that had driven so many of the previous miles before the deer alongside me, both of us rolling too fast toward where we were going. And then I stopped for the deer and the young man. And they kept going. There was no way to know the timing or even for certain that this was the car I drove alongside all those miles or just one that looked like it; there was no way to know whether I, in my tired and cranky state, might’ve wound up offsides and out of kilter along with the ones in the wreck if I hadn’t stopped; there was no actual, unquestionable connection between the accident and me except that I was passing its scene and was not in it. But I got cold chills, passing the investigators and hazard crews, ambulance (if there was one) long gone, and so I barely noticed the boys from Virginia pass by with a hoot to be back on open road. I drove slowly, deliberate, alert, and even pulled over to change a hotel reservation so I could get off the road sooner than originally planned. Life comes at us every breath, until suddenly it doesn’t.
I spent much of the rest of the evening sending healing thoughts to the little deer and to the family in that car. Maybe it does no good for anyone but me, but since we’re all energy, I figure you can’t ever tell for sure and so I do it, my equivalent of praying, I suppose. And I reached back in my mind to the desert I love so well, breathed in its peace and solitude, and carried on toward the sea.
Only days later did it come to me once more, mid-prayer for the deer again and the people in that wrecked car, this truth I know in my bones from the desert, standing safely at last on the eastern edge of land and sea on this wide, wide continent: how closely knit everything is. The young men all, the people in that car and then gone to where I know not, the young woman lonesome for her Wisconsin home, the highway workers trying to get a lane cleared and nodding their thanks to me, the deer, the man who fought hard to free her, and me: bar none, helping each other to make it through and being helped just the same on the way.
The desert remembers the sea. This I have known for longer than I can remember. Its winds and sands speak of tides and waters long since retreated but still carried in memory. And now, as I go once more upon the sea? It comes to me strong that the sea, too, knows the desert’s name. And that both know all of us. And with this, I can abide.
I hate some of the things that I know. Just hate them. There’s no zen in such a matter, no course in miracles’ing along, just a bleak bearing witness to reality here and now.
On checking into my hotel this afternoon, a couple entered the lobby behind me. Without even looking at them, I felt terrible tension; glancing only briefly at both of them, I knew—in a prehensile way—that their relationship is marked by him beating her. Often. How do I know this? I can’t really say. It is the smell of violence, the slight gestures, the way that eyes skitter off even the merest glance of an outsider like me: it all hits like a ton of dry rocks on a body that’s been stranded in the wilderness for nine years and then some; that’s how I know/feel it every time. I don’t ask for this; I sometimes don’t even want it: but it comes anyway, unbidden, unanticipated, and wholly unwelcome every last time.
That brief encounter was hours ago. At 1:54 a.m. local time, from a sound sleep, I awoke to the sounds of beating and screaming on the floor above and then the loud tramping footfalls of two people running down the stairs and exiting the back of the building. By the time I made it to the window of my room, they had cleared a grassy knoll beyond the parking lot, and he was about to catch up with her, hands outstretched, her going as fast as possible away, and then they both disappeared behind some trees to the city street beyond. As did the sounds.
Normally I would have done my best to bumble into it, acting like a slow-headed middling-age white Mississippian—which works nearly every time to dissipate most hostilities (including those of a seemingly non-violent and more genteel manner), but I was too slow to get up just now and not clothed or wits-gathered enough to leave the room. Normally, when that has been the case before, I have at least called the police. This time I cannot. This state has an awful record for police dealing with people who are not white-skinned. Calling the police might mean that I have played a direct role in one or both of their deaths. Leaving neither to learn and find other ways to be than where they are trapped now.
So I sit here awake, torn and wrestling with my conscience and body (which has its own direct ways of knowing these things), hoping against hope that I will hear them returning and see not violence but maybe a respite, some small signs of retreat from that angry abyss. And I also sit here hating what all I know and how I know it, yet fearing with an ageless fury what it would mean for such things to happen to real people all around me . . . and me be too clueless to pick up on the smells, the gestures, the terribly ordinary, often tiny details that signal love gone wrongheaded and mean.
Why do I say this to a blog? I don’t really know. I started composing on Facebook, but then remembered their algorithms, which prefer the happy-content posts, and came over here instead. My online front porch, to which I mostly talk to myself, or so it seems some days. Oh well. Life is not all about happiness and lightness or even being heard. Life also, and daily to boot, includes that against which we rail . . . or forego our own souls. I pray, sitting here in the long darkness, that those who are trapped in the wells of love gone wrong can somehow find their way out. I pray and I write, and I beg my own body to help me to survive these knowings.
Autumn is the season in which I showed up on this planet, so perhaps that bent me its direction for life? I don’t know. All I know is that I love these dying, food-harvesting/devouring, wood-gathering, school-starting, day-shortening days. They bespeak all the hungers of all species ever to me, and make me feel at home in the world.
Wishing you a good season ahead, no matter where in the world you may be today!
Writing a book, I have learned, is akin to having a child. It is important to begin to let go from the moment of birth, because stories and children have their own lives to lead, and they do it better without parental/authorial interference. Since two of my books have now been adapted for films, I’ve had the great fun of watching this happen twice. At first, of course, it’s hard not to want to get in and fix things, offer ‘notes’ and suggestions, but the creative synergy of film is a great deal more like a combustion chamber engine than an echo chamber of one kingly queen and no more. Learning to trust that, participating when asked but staying well back otherwise? Is far more satisfying to me.
The first Tally Nowata novel, Leave No Trace, has been released as a feature film (titled Heatstroke) this summer, and I watched it again this afternoon with friends who hadn’t yet seen it. At first I missed the deep textures of how a person survives when suddenly adrift in a place for which she has no skills. I missed the struggle between a younger child and tormented woman. I missed the ways that violence haunts the book. I missed the visceral death-grip that the desert itself has on a soul when survival is no longer guaranteed. I missed the person learning at last to work with the environment, not against it, to come alongside instead of control. I reacted with considerable angst at the weirdest things: the IPad (for very personal reasons) and Jo and Tally’s clothes, because they are, indeed, death-dealers for any real survival situation. I very nearly got grumpy at Tally’s skirt fabric, too, because it is gorgeous for wearing but far too thin and unsuitable for the bushveld. The camp, as well, was far too sumptuous for most ecological field camps. And I reacted with particular vehemence to the Paul character’s characterization of wild animals as likely to ‘rip your throat out,’ for that is 180 degrees off my own experiences with such beings. But, of course, I only know these things because I’ve done long months of desert fieldwork or wilderness travel and have actually had to take shelter from a sand storm for a whole afternoon under nothing more substantial than my skirt (which means its warp and woof mattered enormously to me!). No one who hasn’t done that is likely to notice such details. I have also done a great deal of work on desert survival, so I missed all the parts of the book that were about that, coming to terms with that, figuring out how to make it in a hostile land without skills or knowledge for it. Again, though, no one who hasn’t done this would likely notice. It’s hellaciously hard to film a book with characters as interior and reflective as I wrote in Leave No Trace, so the fact that someone had the passion and vision to try? Is worth more from me than a quick look-see. So I have settled in to watch the film with friends or kin three times, and today I liked it better than ever.
The movie deepens each time I watch it (which is no longer common for me with films), and I find more resonances with the book and also more ways to learn from an adaptation that, at first glance anyway, is very different from my original vision. Leave No Trace was set in the Tanami Desert of Australia, the child Jo was younger, the key wild animal was a white dingo, and the way out was dicey not just due to hostile men but because neither food nor water were secured and Tally knew nothing of desert survival skills when she started. Evelyn Purcell, the director of Heatstroke, took Tally to the Karoo in South Africa, turned her into a Russian, gave her more skills and a child that was older and tuned into an IPad, and the dingo became a male spotted hyena named Violet. The time frame was cut down, and the challenges were paired with what someone might run into in southern Africa instead. More importantly, though, Evelyn and Anne Brookbank (co-writer of the script) and the producers at Bold Films did a beautiful job of keeping the core relationships intact, of using in some cases language straight from the book or close to it, and of re-envisioning this tale for a screen. They made the story their own, exactly as I hoped they would do, and that makes for a better tale. Always.
And now I’m beginning to see more of the resonances. Anne and Evelyn asked for my notes on the script as it was taking shape, my ideas for transforming the main characters and dilemmas, and my take on the language, and I can see places where some of our conversations came through. Watching the film now is like looking at a great sea of humanity and understanding that the drop of water that I was upon falling into it? Has become an undistinguishable part of the whole. I treasure that connection and would never wish to have made a sea that looked exactly only like my own personal vision or mirrored only me. The world is too wide for that. We need other storytellers to help us along.
Maisie Williams, Svetlana Metkina, Steven Dorff, and Peter Stormare played the leads beautifully, striking just the right cadences for the characters I was haunted so by in the writing, and I would only have liked to have seen them get deeper into the mix and become more of these remixed versions, carry the film on longer, not reach so quickly the release. Each one, though, brings a certain unique magic to the tale and breaks out of the book’s boundaries to become something else, something more. (Which is precisely why I would be curious to go on alongside them for a longer spell!) The men who did Foy and Bodley, intriguingly enough, were dead ringers for how I saw them in my head. Since I played no role whatsoever in casting, it is fascinating and a bit unsettling to see both these men—secondary, in some ways, to the others—come so fully to life. The dark sides of survival and loss, too, come roaring through this film, and when I sit back and just take it all in, I’m surprised by what we have all wrought together. Now it goes on its little way through the world, touching some lives and not others. Just like a child. Grown up and moving on beyond us, as ever.
For a review of Leave No Trace from a reader that ‘gets’ it, see this one at RT Book Reviews.