Saturday, April 13, 2013

If There are Angels - A Story for the Oregonian

N. Rakha, Colorado River Mile 134.5. Tapeats Creek.
On Sunday, April 14th, the Oregonian will publish an article I wrote about Kaitlin Kenny, the young woman who drowned in the Colorado River while on a 29-day river trip though the Grand Canyon.

I first wrote about Kaitlin on January 16th, four days after her friends woke at Tapeats Creek to find her missing. I wrote about her again in February after hiking to the river, and then again just recently after her body was finally found and returned home.

Jeff Baker from the Oregonian asked that I write about how words can sometimes reach out and touch people in ways a writer can not expect. That is true about my essays on Kaitlin. I certainly never expected to be drawn into her life as I have, and I feel very grateful to have been able to play a small role in helping people come to terms with loss.

You can link to the on-line version of the Oregonian article here: Words Open Path Toward Healing in the Grand Canyon.

Monday, April 8, 2013

This Porous World

 My experiences related to the canyon have been on the order of a spiritual awakening which has left me as porous as the canyon's sedimentary strata, where rain water cleaves and carves and emerges later as beautiful clear springs.

I take power naps. Total shutdowns that last twenty minutes—max. I lay down, close my eyes, and off I go. During yesterday's nap I dreamt I was walking within a pink fog. There was no telling where I was, it was just pink, pink, pink hovering over and around me. A myopic's sunrise? I didn't know. Then I heard water, and soon saw a small clear stream covered in parts with the tiny pads of bright green duck weed. And then there were frogs, dozens of them hoping from one round stone to another.

I love frogs.

And so the dream was good in its dreamy, pink-ceilinged-froggy kind of way. Then a piece of pink fog broke off the roof of my dream and fluttered to the ground. A flamingo feather? Cotton Candy? I leaned down and picked it up. It was a leguminous shaped flower, like a sweet pea, but as small as a baby's eye tooth.

I looked back up, and now I could see beyond the pink to the hulking outline of the canyon. I must have learned about the redbud trees at Indian Gardens in the Grand Canyon somewhere. Maybe I read about them in Canyon Crossing (a book I recommend anyone with an interest in the canyon read.) Maybe I noticed them when I was hiking the Bright Angel Trail in February. Though I doubt that. They would have been fairly nondescript without their blooms or heart-shaped leaves. At any rate, it doesn't matter how I knew about the trees, what mattered was that my dream took me to this desert oasis. A patch of green half way to the river, half way to the rim. Native people sheltered here for more than 10,000 years before the white guys came. The native's planted crops, even orchards.

In the pink-tinged dream I could smell the creek water, taste it in the dry air, hear my feet crush the brittle remnants of last autumn's leaves.

After twenty minutes I woke, put on my glasses and looked out the window of my Oregon home. The hail that had fallen earlier still covered the ground, the sky was still gray. I heaved a great heavy sigh, feeling sad and stupid, longing for the canyon like a regular person might long for a human being.

Redbud trees at Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail taken by Willie Holdman

I walked into the kitchen and saw the mail had come while I was hiking at Indian Gardens. Among the bills were two packages for me.

The first package was from from Brian Kenney. It included the program from his daughter, Kaitlin's, memorial, a short note, and a cd the family had put together of music that reminded them of Kaitlin. I read the memorial, thinking of the route that had brought me into this family's life. I have had several people write to tell me they thought the purpose for my residency at the Grand Canyon was so that I could write the essays I did. To be a vehicle, so to speak. Someone who knew the canyon and could speak to loss. Put it in a frame that could be held and reckoned with. I don't know. I don't know much about anything, really. Not much at all.

My son put the cd in our stereo. That cd is playing now, and I am captured by a song I had never heard before. If I was a Raven is sung acapella by Bonnie Paine.

If I was a raven
I'd fly off to the heaven
I'd fly to all my love ones
If was a raven.

If memories are worth saving
I'd savor the feeling
Of knowing love and loving
I'd remember the feeling

Some say up on that mountain
There is many a raven
They call out to the living
From somewhere far beyond them

From the sweet love that has flown on.

The song, of course, made me think of Kaitlin Kenney, and the canyon and its ubiquitous ravens, and my own desire that when I die my ashes be scattered in the Grand Canyon so that I can be part raven and part river. Part pinion, part cacti, part ponderosa pine perched on a shelf of the rim. Part canyon dust that may one day be part canyon wall.

I turned my attention to the second package, a blue plastic bubble-wrap envelop. Grand Canyon return address. Inside, I found a beautiful letter from my friend Kristi Rugg, the ranger who I hiked part of Hermit Trail with and who dropped me off at South Kaibab for my decent to the river. She had written an ode to the canyon. Beautiful heartfelt words about humans' connection to place.

"Generations of people have made Grand Canyon home. The Hopi emerged from its depths, and to it they return when their time here is over. Tiyo, the first person to travel through the canyon's depths by way of the river, found wonder and mystery so far removed from the outside world, sheltered in the unforgiving walls. When he emerged he was changed. He found love, discovered new information, and met his connection to the wildness, Spider Grandmother. Similarly the DinĂ©, Havasupai, Hualapai, Paiute, Apache, and Zuni all have ventured down to be connected and be uplifed.

You are counted among those...the people who find their hearts somewhere in the granite and sandstone....."

In addition to the letter there was a small box. Inside, was a little bear carved from pipestone. Kristi said the bear it is meant to symbolize the devine. Which may explain my ache. My experiences related to the canyon have been on the order of a spiritual awakening which has left me as porous as the canyon's sedimentary strata, where rain water cleaves and carves and emerges later as beautiful clear springs.

I am not talking holy-roller, church-going, give-me-god kind of awakening. I am talking about a sense of connection, to land, to people, to story, and history, to the sky, to water. To life. A sense that there is more to this world then I will ever know or understand and that there are no answers. Nothing definitive. And that nothing, not one thing exists in isolation from another.

Vasey's Paradise Grand Canyon river mile 30
And now, just now, as I write those words, I get an email from my rafting buddy, Bert. He tells me a friend of his knew Kaitlin's family. And the day before that my brother calls to tell me he knew their parents. Years ago, when he lived in Chicago, he would occasionally go to Denver where they worked for the same company. My brother lost touch when he left that job, and he did not put my writing and his connection with the Kenny's together until he saw the mother's name on my Facebook site. He remembers her talking about Kaitlin playing the violin and taking up dance. About them going to music festivals. Kaitlin would have been six or seven then. Just a child.

I close my email, and hold my bear, and listen to Kaitlin's music. I have no idea about much of anything. No answers. No certainties, but this—love is a good thing. It pries open our hearts and makes us available to the world. Porous people with the ability to see and connect in ways we can not when we approach our days with pain, fear and anger.

There is a good path. It has redbud trees in bloom right now, a small stream with duck weed and frogs, and all you have to do to walk it is be open to what comes.

I hope to go back to the canyon in October—to hike to the river under the full moon. I hope to be there in April next year to hike to Indian Garden and lay beneath the redbuds. I hope to raft it in every season of the year. Silty red of monsoon to clear green of winter.

Maybe this is what Georgia O'Keefe felt about New Mexico. She had to be there. It was her muse, the place her heart soared. That's what I feel when I'm at the canyon—a wild soaring heart.

-Naseem Rakha 4/7/13