Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What Am I Doing Here?

I meet Dale at the trailhead to Flat Pass.  The rains have churned the trail to pieces.  Our dogs run ahead of us, open-mouthed, instant friends.  They plunge down the hill toward the creek.  Dale walks with a dryer sheet tucked like a television make-up tissue into her collar, to keep the flies off.  Dale knows unexpected things.  For years she worked for the FBI, one of the first group of 35 women to be hired and trained as agents by the Bureau.  In those days her neck was draped with gold and diamonds: she worked Corruption, and one of her longest undercover assignments was posing as a rich woman eager to make more money by breaking the law.  She fingered wiseguys, businessmen, politicians on the take.  In those days, they didn't expect a pretty woman to be packing both a tape recorder and heat.

"Did you like the work?" I ask, impressed.

"I loved it.  And I was good at it."

Even though we're in the backcountry her blonde hair is perfectly combed, her powder in place, and I can see it would have been easy not to recognize her for Johnny Law.

"Was it tough work?"

"Well, it's just like they say.  You go in thinking you're going to save the world.  Then you despair.  Some of the men I spent months investigating got off, one way or another.  You ask yourself why you're doing it.  Then you become resigned.  Then you decide just to do what you can right where you are.  You try to do good where you can."

Since retiring from the Bureau, Dale grows grass and raises sheep and has the wool shorn and sent to the Navajo reservation to be worked into rugs.  She loves her animals.  You can have a special bond with sheep, she tells me.  They know you, and you know them.  "They're my friends, my companions.  They're wonderful," she adjusts the little white Bounce sheet at her neck.

Her days are almost busier now, she tells me, than when she was an agent.  From morning till night she's working on her property, and the lack of good help doesn't make anything easier.

"You can't get anyone to do any labor.  It's so strange."

We talk for a while about the strange shape our country is in.  The dogs  find the creek again and stand in the middle of it, with the water rushing all around their legs, trying to knock them down.  We talk about how much we love our dogs; we talk about our families.  Dale never married; in the old days she was always working odd hours, with never any time to meet anyone; then later on she found that men weren't too keen on a woman who knew more about firearms than they did.  She could see the insecurity in their eyes before they walked away.

Her father had died some years before, but her mother was still alive, or rather dying under the care of hospice in Colorado.  Not one thing alone was killing her but many things all at once.  Once a month Dale left her sheep to go across the state line.

"My sister and I take turns.  I go, and most of the time my mother doesn't even recognize me.  She just keeps asking me, 'Where am I?  What am I doing here?  What am I doing here?  Please, what am I doing here?'"

Dale calls the dogs out of the water and gives them each a treat.  They come to her hand and then race off again through the scrub.  We turn around and start heading back toward the trailhead.  Dale has to get back to her sheep.  She also had a llama once, but the relationship didn't work out.

"Llamas don't like women," she tells me.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Noticing Small Things

On noticing small things: If you haven't done this lately, do it.  The world is an astonishment, a golden coin always jingling in your pocket: whenever you want you can take it out and marvel at its richness.

And you are a part of it.  You are of the same value. There is the elaborate beadwork of your own skin.  There is the perfect array of your eyelashes (bat your eyes, feel them).  There are the textures of the things your eyes fall on, some of them as fine as your own skin, even finer, and some as broad as the hull of a ship. There are tiny things that move and crawl in our gutters, and the way water washes in a gutter, sometimes in long straws, and there is the rather brilliant design of the piece of furniture you might be sitting on, to say nothing of grass and sand, that never complain when we sit there, what resilience, what beauty, what fineness. When was the last time you looked at a cloud, a shadow, the fold in your elbow, the perfect roundness of a dinner plate, a clever, clever cardboard box, the shapes of words themselves?  Them selves. Oh it's delicious, it's funny, it's charming!  And there is the way rust grows and even garbage lies, waiting to become something else.  And sounds.  Not just one, most of them come in layers.  And your ear can hear.  Have you listened?  Have you tried to separate the sounds?  Take your hand and feel whatever is near you.  Lick your lips and notice the taste.  Close your eyes and watch color turn down, as though it had volume, as though it were also a sound.

Open your eyes.  Smell the air.  What is it?

Extraordinary.  Take time.  Count the riches.  Brush the earth off as happily as you would the roughest diamond.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone