"I shrink from death and all its symbols. Signs that this life is failing me, as it failed my grandmother and grandfather, as it fails everyone in the end. Cracks and fissures. I catch my reflection in the store window and see wrinkles lining the corners of my eyes. My hair falls out as I comb it, strewn all over the bathroom sink. I pick up a strand and hold it to the light; the brown is draining to pure white."
"Walking out on the prairie after the burn in the early spring, I can only think of purification, loss, death. Everywhere is charred earth. There’s a crunching under my hiking boots, and it’s a deer mouse skeleton, scorched. Willoway Brook is choked with cinders. What good can possibly come from this?"
When I read Cindy Crosby’s book of mediations – By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer – I am struck by the rawness of her honesty as well as the intensity of her description of life on the tallgrass prairie (which she uses as an extended metaphor for the life of faith and struggle to know God.) It’s like fine wine, something I need to take in sips. Sometimes it’s like hard liquor too: it burns on the way down.
I just read her chapter on pain sitting here on a patio at my hotel here in Santa Monica. I’m not in pain, now. The sky is a clear and smogless blue, the palm trees bright and swaying, and if I stand and stretch I can just about see the azure blue of the Pacific Ocean. Just about.
Walking in Palisades Park, the strand above the beach at Santa Monica, I see all kinds – kids playing, young couples lolling, tourists taking it in, the elderly out for a walk, and the ubiquitous homeless sorting through the garbage, our castoffs. I wonder why there are here, what kind of days they have.
I can see why people come here. Southern California holds the promise of eternal youth, of painless existence, of endless summers – if you have enough money, that is. And yet talk to someone who has been here for awhile, and they often want to leave this “paradise” for various reasons – for a place with less crime, or traffic, or hype, a place more authentic. The promise of endless summers and youth rings hollow after a while.
When I come here I cannot help but think of Brian Wilson, that often tortured genius behind the Beach Boys sound, now 64. His life has not been an endless summer, not been a happy one at all. When I have met him, each time only briefly, the smile is genuine and yet with his eyes he is afraid. Maybe he’s wandering what I want from him – just an autograph, or just to say I met him, as I am now, to steal a part of his privacy? When I see him and hear him in interviews, I don’t know if he’s come to grips with his past or still thinks he can beat it on his own, somehow cheat death and suffering of its sting.
Prairie fire is painful. It leaves scorched earth in its wake. That’s how the trials that come in life are. Scorching, and not pretty. But prairie fire renews, and the earth comes back greener and healthier as a result. That’s not always the case with humans. Some curse their circumstances and their lives end up smaller and more peevish. Some, however, accept them, and grow from them. Their lives end up wounded and yet healthier.
I don’t know which it will be for Brian Wilson. I hope renewal. I feel like I’ve wasted some of my fires. I pray I won’t in the future.
I know that the folks strolling the Palisades here in Santa Monica have likely had pain. I wonder what they have done with it.
Crosby says “I have been depressed. I am depressed.” She is honest. And yet she is growing in it. In her book we look in on that growth in process. It’s not easy. Prairie fires are painful to watch.