Tuesday, January 26, 2010


"I don't know who broke our butterfly," Brandy tells us, "but when they find him, just hand him over to me, and I'll break his legs."

We're 150 feet underground. The air is damp, 85 degrees. The light is artificial. Brandy's cheeks are warm and flushed.

Sometimes, you need to go down to go up. I'd visited the Caverns of Sonora when I was twelve, but hardly remembered them. As a college student hitchhiking to California, my husband, standing here in the warm, wet light beside me, had once gotten as far as the cavern entrance, but didn't have enough money to go in. In those days, the cave was a small, family-run affair; it's still a family affair, and the same family still owns the place, but now there is a gleaming Visitors Center, and a campground with RV hookups, and a parking lot big enough to attract tour buses.

Yet on this deep, dead-of-winter day, we are the only ones in line.

Before we can go in and down, our guide Brandy has to take a call from her daughter's elementary school.

"Sorry," she blushes (she's blond and small and doesn't look much more than a kid herself). "Your child starts coughing, and right away they want to send her home with swine flu. I really feel bad you had to wait. But once we're down in the cave, we're completely cut off from everything." She smiles, her long lashes like wings.

She seals the air-tight door behind us, and we begin heading down toward the two miles of open cavern network. In less than a minute we're in another world. We've stepped and slipped into a plane of jewels. The Caverns of Sonora, Texas make Carlsbad look like an abandoned strip mine. Here, everything is so close, and so beautiful, it takes all you have not to touch it to make sure it, and you, are real.

Brandy is teaching us the names of the formations we're seeing as we go along: popcorn stone, flowstone, cave coral, cave drapery, columns, dogtooth spar, quartzes, soda straws, stalactites, stalagmites, helactites. Geodes "bake" like crystal-packed muffins on the walls.

"Now, all of this grows at a rate of one centimeter per 10,000 years," she tells us as we pass a huge column growing out of the floor, close to touching its twin descending from the ceiling. Called the "Kissing Column," the two formations are--yes--a mere centimeter apart.

My husband, who loves to talk to people and ask questions:

"So . . . do you like doing this for your job, Brandy?"

"I LOVE it! I love both things I do. I guide in the morning, and then I go to nursing sch00l in San Angelo at night. And then I practice my anatomy down here." She points to metacarpals of flowstone, brachial tubes of coral, helactites in the shape of mandibles. She also directs our attention to formations that look like bacon and pork chops. She savors the work.

My husband, ever interested in the consequences of actions over time, asks: "But if you like it so much, what will you do when you're all done with nursing school?"

"I don't know," Brandy grimaces, and switches off the lights. All through the cave, she's been turning the lights on and off as we go, so that what lies in front of us always remains in darkness, and what lies behind us is in darkness, and the only place illuminated is the place where we stand. "I don't want to think about that right now. Ask me later."

We pass signs of damage, places where tourists, unable to keep from reaching, have blackened the calcium walls with human oil. We pass through chambers of pure, undamaged white to reach Horseshoe Pond, an emerald lake surrounded by a halo of pearls. The water is so clear it hurts to look at it.

"This is my favorite room," Brandy says.

"Mine too," my husband nods.

At the deepest point in the cavern, Brandy turns off all the lights so we can appreciate the total blackness of its natural state. She informs us that if we stayed down like this for two weeks, we would start to go blind. "The retina starts to decay," she says matter-of-factly. Then she puts the lights on again. "Okay, so now I'm going to take you to see the butterfly--sad as that is."

The butterfly was once the glory, the pride and the emblem of the Caverns of Sonora. I remembered seeing it when I was twelve, so small and amber-colored and perfect, a marvel of accident. But a vandal had since broken off one of its translucent wings, probably while trying to steal it. It was a two-man operation: during a tour of more than thirty people, a "plant" at the head of the tour had distracted the guide, while a man at the back hopped the railing, attacked, and stuck the piece in his pocket. The damage wasn't discovered until the next tour came through.

"And then we cried." Brandy lowers her eyes. "All of us who work here cried and cried and cried and cried. It was horrible. They did end up figuring out who it was. From his credit card. He has a history. The Texas Rangers are still after him. But so far no luck. Anyway we don't do big tours anymore. No more."

The mood turns somber--but no sooner has Brandy turned the lights around us off and on again than she beats her long lashes and goes back to smiling and guiding. There is so much to SEE down here, after all, she says. Maybe we would discover something else just as beautiful. Maybe SHE would. There were seven miles of cave, total. She was always looking, among the thousands of formations, for the next butterfly.

As we begin to emerge from the depths, my husband asks Brandy what kind of nurse she would like to be.



Friday, January 22, 2010

I Celebrate The Reader

I'd arrived a bit early for the lecture I was scheduled to give, and was introducing myself to some of the audience trickling in who'd come to hear me talk about creativity and leaping forward in our lives and work, when a tall, quiet woman glanced over at me and seemed to want to catch my attention, yet seemed shy about it at the same time. I came over and we started chatting, and finally I asked her what it was she did.

"Nothing," she said.


She meant, she explained quickly, that she did nothing "creative." And added that she probably didn't really "belong" at my lecture. She was just . . . visiting.

"But what do you like to do?" I asked.

"Oh, I love to read. I have a book group. I have to read good books, and I have to be with people who know how to talk about books in a way that matters. So I started this group. There are just seven of us. But it's really important to me."

"So you created this group."

"Well . . ."

"And you love to read. And you create discussions about books, original discussions. And reading itself--that involves your imagination interacting with the imagination of an author. You create images in your head. You create your own reading of the book. Yes?"

"Well . . . "

Someone else came up to us. Again my new friend was asked what she did.

"Nothing," she answered, shyly.


My challenge to myself, this weekend, is to think more closely about that word "creative," and to dream up new and still better ways to tear down the walls that have inadvertently grown up around and hedged that word.

Creativity, my friends, isn't only over on this acre, and not on that one. As a writer, if I achieve anything at all, I achieve it through you, whose hearts and spirits and minds and eyes open to this page, who lend your memory and imagination to it, so that it no longer lies flat and full of dull symbols, but rises, as if under a wand. Reading is a deeply creative act. Readers, you are my partners in creativity. You are brush against my brush.

I celebrate, you, the reader. Click clack click clack. I make. You make happen.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Meeting House

The Live Oak Meeting House, where Friends gather each Sunday to sit in silence until the spirit moves them, wasn't entirely quiet, at first. The child in the pew in front of me whispered as she nuzzled against her grandmother's neck. The couple opposite me turned the pages of the books they had brought with them to read. A man behind me sniffled with a cold; in the windowseat to my left, two more children whispered and squirmed. A woman in front of the couple with the books wiped a tear from her eye, then began writing in a journal. Around and somehow over us was a sound--I was a visitor to the meeting, and thought at first it must be the cooling system, then decided it was recorded audio--inhaling and exhaling. Like amplified, human breathing.

At last all was silent but for this sound. Even the children held their peace. The woman with the journal continued to write. A middle-aged man behind her, with his eyes closed and his hands folded in his lap, hadn't moved a muscle in the fifteen minutes since the meeting had begun. I turned my head a little to the right, and saw, tucked in the corner, a young, pale woman in a wheelchair, a white hose attaching her to a breathing machine. This was the sound filling the Live Oak Meeting House.

After a few more minutes, a middle-aged man stood and said:

"I'm sitting here thinking of a man who once told me he wished he was young again. He said to me: 'God I wish I was seventy again.' It was forty years ago when he said this to me. Across a chessboard. We were playing in a tournament together, and I was a teenager, and I wanted to win so badly. And this man, who was in his eighties, could see it. So he looked up at me and he said, 'God I wish I could be young again. Young people tend to think only about beginnings. What you need to do is think about your end game. Even when you're young. Think. Think that way.' He ended up teaching me so much about chess, that afternoon. And then I never saw him again. Or thought about him much. Until last week. I remembered him, for one reason and another, and realized that after all these years I might be able to look him up on the Internet. And I couldn't believe what I found. He'd had a biography written about him. He'd helped to train Bobby Fischer. He'd been somebody.

"The more I read, the more I was astonished. He'd spent his whole life in and out of penitentiaries. He'd done time at Alcatraz. One of his specialties was stealing cars. Especially Volkswagens. He loved to steal Volkswagens. He'd steal them and turn back the odometers. And there was more. In the 1930's he'd been arrested while holding the bag of money in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case. He hadn't kidnapped the baby; he'd only claimed to, in a fraud, and then demanded ransom money, and when they came and gave it to him he got caught. Off to jail he went. His whole life was like that. Stealing cars. In and out of jail. What finally stopped him was a car accident. In a Volkswagen. When he was seventy years old. After that he just played chess. His whole life he was a con-man . . . I guess I'm just thinking, you never know who's sitting across from you."

The man sat down.

The woman's regular, controlled breathing filled the room again. I liked the sound of it. I liked the way it divided up the minutes, made me feel my own breath, and aware of the breathing around me, made me glad the woman was breathing, and getting help to breathe, and glad we were all breathing, and that we still had time.

At a signal, the children rose and were guided out to daycare, where their assignment for the day was to make a heart like a mirror, a heart covered in tinfoil, so that when you held it up, you would see your own face.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone