Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hold on to what you must do

Image: Museum of Bathtub Art (, Created by Jonathan H. Liu, Portland, Ore.


My neighbor spent six hours shoveling snow from his driveway. Then he left for a week. The snow kept on coming. Now his driveway is completely covered. I wondered aloud why he spent so much time on such a thankless task when he could have just made a couple of tire grooves like we did. Because he’s not lazy like us? Because he wanted stronger arms? Because he risked his life getting to the hardware store in the middle of a blizzard, snagged that last snow shovel, and by God, he was going to get his money’s worth? But now he’s gone and can’t see his ruined job. Maybe he’s off on vacation right now, imagining the scraped-clean cement, and smiling about it.

I thought about all of that and then I took my digital recorder into the woods to capture the sound of ice falling from the trees. Crouched amongst the ferns, I wondered aloud why I spend so much time…doing strange things.

There was a gathering in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. I was the only white person there. A big pot of corn soup simmered on a propane stove on the picnic table. We were all young college kids. A friend of mine was in New Mexico attending the Native American art school in Santa Fe. There was a big bonfire throwing sparks up into the night. Some people wanted me to leave because it was an Indian gathering. I stuck out in the crowd, small and wiry and wearing a bright red gore-tex jacket. They called me “The Crossing Guard.” The angry ones kept their eyes downcast, refusing to look up at me. It was one of those haunting experiences, but it was good to be humbled.

I picked some red cedar leaves in the woods and boiled them. The water smells good in a bath. I cut some boiled sprigs into bits and mixed them with sugar and kosher salt, olive oil and lavender essential oil. It scrubs the dirt away like you wouldn’t believe and only costs about twenty five cents to make, compared to about $10-$16 for sugar and salt scrubs you can buy. I sat in the bath and watched the snow come down and listened to my recording while reading my new Runner’s World magazine. The microphone picked up the sounds beautifully, though I moved around too much and an airplane went overhead, overshadowing the echoey forest sounds. I had an idea once to record the sounds inside of famous restaurants so you could have a dinner party with all of the appropriate dining clatter and say to your guests, “”We’re in Paris! This is what it sounds like in Le Jules Verne!” We actually took a recorder into a British pub to try it, but the microphone picked up all the wrong noises, like our forks and our smacking and a a whiney customer bitching about her over-cooked bangers.

I was thinking about obsessions when I picked up that Runner’s World in the bathtub, freshly brewed cedar essence rising up in the steam. On the cover it says, “Do you tie your shoes wrong?"
For some reason that intrigued me more than “28 tips to lose weight.” So I flipped to the story. It’s about an Australian computer programmer and graphic designer named Ian Fieggen who is obsessed with shoe lace knots. He invented a namesake method in 1982. He has a website dedicated to teaching people how to tie a better knot. ( He quit his job to spread the gospel of more efficient shoelace knot tying. “I gave a name to something I invented,” he said.

That story really got me thinking about obsessions and human needs, desires & passions. To scrape the pavement clean. To fix the world’s wayward laces. To capture sounds. To create. In 1961, Susan Sontag wrote in her journal, “Writing is a beautiful act. It is making something that will give pleasure to others later.”

Photo: Full Wolf Moon over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains


I’m working on a story set in New Mexico. I’d like to go back there again. It’s beautiful, especially away from the tourist areas. Later, after the experience at the campfire, I met an old man named Frank in front of the Taos Pueblo. I’ll never forget him. He chatted away, his words slow and measured in that sing-song Native way – long pauses and breaks mid-sentence. He lived in the Pueblo. He told me all about his family. He didn’t care that I looked like a crossing guard.

A good corn soup will warm you up from the inside out and back again. So will this Pueblo prayer.

Hold On
--A Pueblo Indian Prayer

Hold on to what is good,
even if it's a handful of earth.

Hold on to what you believe,
even if it's a tree that stands by itself.

Hold on to what you must do,
even if it's a long way from here.

Hold on to your life,
even if it's easier to let go.

Hold on to my hand,
even if I've gone away from you.


ps -- The Full Wolf Moon is January 10, 2009. Don’t forget to look up!


Neve Black said...

I'll have to mark the Full Wolf Moon down on my calendar. I'm hoping it's as glorious to view from here in the midwest.

Sending you good writing thoughts.

Craig Sorensen said...

I passed through Southern New Mexico driving cross country westbound in 1989. Beautiful country, though I really want to go to Santa Fe / Taos some day.

My wife went to Santa Fe a few years back for an artists conference and still raves about the experience: The sunrises and sunsets, the smell of chiles roasting (a festival was going on while she was there) further fueling my wish to visit.

I wish you well on your story.

Kirsten Monroe said...

Hi Neve,

I do hope you can see that big New Year moon and howl at it!

Thanks Craig -- all that big sky in the Southwest is glorious, isn't it? And in Santa Fe and Taos there is such a richness of culture and history. You're just not going to smell chiles roasting at any old festival. There's a strong sense of place there that offers a truly unique experience.

Nikki Magennis said...

Can we hear your icicle recording?! It sounds wonderful ...

Kirsten Monroe said...

Hi Nikki,

I'll download it and see what it sounds like! I think I ruined it with my noisy mittens, but I'll give it a try :) Knowing you'd like to hear it makes me smile.