I Am A Leaver

People are walking back and forth in front of the camera pointed at the open guitar case, set up in front of bookshelves at a Phoenix Barnes and Noble. The video is over a decade old, and he looks younger. We all were younger then.

The song is undeniable, a gift. Maybe not a hit, or maybe, hard saying given the uncertain dust storm of gatekeepers and luck that has always whirled around the music business.

Doesn’t matter, though. The song is golden.

I heard the full-band version through the truck speakers yesterday, a forgotten track that had somehow followed my computers and iPhones over the last 10 years until my phone told my truck ‘play this.’ I guess sometimes these phones really are smart.

I don’t know how many times I hit the repeat button. All the way up to Ketchum from the ranch. I know that much. And all the way back home.

And watching this video now, I see me. I played in front of passers-by and bookshelves in a Phoenix Barnes and Noble the same year, before delivering my heart to 4 people at a bar across town, all of whom worked there. I know the sometimes inspiring, often thankless gig.

But what are you going to do? Not walk hand in hand with an elusive dream, shifting shapes between muse and ghost? Not take a chance, not take a risk? Not raise the bar, not increase your threshold, not lay it all out there?

Not deliver your heart?

If you’re not going to deliver your heart, what are you going to do?

Homegrown Son

‘I’m on a conference call right now.’

Except he wasn’t. He was standing in the middle of the street, laboring under four trash bags stuffed to stretched-plastic capacity. His streaked hoodie was pulled over a frayed hat, grimed shorts drooping to his calves.

I’d just said, ‘Hey man,’ when he abruptly turned to me with wide, suspicious eyes sunk into gaunt, clean-shaven cheeks. I couldn’t tell if he was homeless. There are many among us these days, working yet unable to afford housing, homeless yet not destitute.

We exchanged a few sentences, his muttered responses mostly nonsensical, while an unease surfaced in my belly, born in uncertainty as to whether his intent might suddenly shift. Each passing moment teetered more unpredictably on a darkening fulcrum, his speech and body movements becoming more erratic, until I said we’d talk later and headed back to the car.

He dropped his trash bags and followed me, thanking me profusely for all I was doing, all I’d done, all I was going to do. Gratitude was the stream of consciousness he’d chosen to swim in for now, and there’s nothing threatening about gratitude.

Until there is.

But what could I say to this increasingly agitated man, struggling with a mental disorder and unable to communicate?

What could I say to my high school friend and college roommate, with whom I’d awkwardly patrolled fraternity parties freshman year? The gifted musician with whom I’d played songs, the natural athlete with whom I’d surfed? The housemate, with whom I’d shared a living space and barbecues and good, honest times, less than a mile from where we stood?

I hadn’t seen him in well over a decade, real contact lost in the vapid impermanence of text messages and social media, until there was no connection at all.

People talk self-assuredly about not needing to nurture certain relationships, enjoying friendships that pick up right where they left off, after years spent in different orbits.

Sometimes that happens.

But not always.

Not at 10pm on a clear August evening, in a beach town where a homegrown son once walked as a curious toddler, then as a confident teenager and searching young adult, and now as a ghost in a streaked hoodie, hurrying back to the four trash bags stuffed to stretched-plastic capacity, waiting for him in the middle of the street.

The Owl

Giant wings blocked the fading remnants of day outside the window, before collapsing somewhere above, close to the nest of baby swallows clinging to the eave over the back door. Dusk masked superfluous details, so the feather color eluded me, but I was sure the bird was a hawk.

I hustled outside to discourage her from probing the nest, but she was perched higher on the roof, gazing toward the ridge hiding the sleeping sun. Her head turned on a swivel and her wide eyes held me, then pierced me, before she took flight.

An owl.

Awhile back, a beloved horse died next to the river, in the middle of a lesson at the therapeutic riding ranch featured in the For The Sender books. The horse gave the instructor enough warning to pull the young rider from his back, before falling to his knees and taking his last breath, just as an owl swooped in slow-motion past his body.

The wings carried enough intention to cause pause and tears.

Many traditions, including the Celts, believe the owl is a spirit animal that carries the souls of the departed to another world. But owls are also seen as bad omens across parts of Africa, the Middle East and among some Native American tribes. They’re figures of wisdom in most European and North American cultures, symbols of deep intuition and connection.

Social psychologists tell us that what we see often comes down to what we want to believe. ‘Confirmation bias’ is the term they’ve come up with to define our tendency to interpret the world around us according to our beliefs, which can cause misread intents and unintended consequences.

Was this owl perched above us on the roof a harbinger of death? A bad omen? A reminder to trust intuition?

I don’t know. I didn’t even think she was an owl at first, and sometimes I wonder about the value in assigning meaning to every single thing that happens. I’m trying to avoid confirmation bias, I guess, and see things more as they are, and less as I want them to be.

But was that therapy horse’s spirit taken by an owl and gracefully transported somewhere better, with gratitude for his selfless service to those disabled and disadvantaged riders he helped find joy and purpose?

The instructor that knelt next to his dying body will tell you that is exactly what happened.

And I believe her.

The Eagle

My first glimpse of that stretch of sand was from the top of those stairs, now pictured on the front page of the newspaper. I knew I was standing on the edge of a welcome, needed free-fall into the unknown back then, but I never could have predicted the particular tidal ebbs and flows, the swells and turbulence, that would influence both that golden era in my life and the bluff from which I surveyed my new landscape.

Part of that bluff collapsed a couple of days ago, the giant sandstone chunks crushing long-time residents and killing a mother, a grandmother, and an aunt from the same family. A dear friend, who started her own new chapter in our neighborhood that same weekend I stood atop those stairs, knew the family. She said they were beautiful, giving humans, and when I lamented the impossibility of finding meaning in this kind of tragedy, she said, ‘All we can do to honor these precious lives is just hold all of our loved ones tight and say what we mean, when we mean it.’

Precious lives were also lost in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend, in a bloody 12 hour span sponsored by angry young white males. Making sense of the senseless has already taken the shape of blame, which comes across more as a reactionary advancement of a preconceived narrative than anything constructive.

I was a world away last week, finding kinship with a solitary tree that clung to a crag high above the river. Bereft of companion or concern, her roots were fed by summer thunderstorms and coming winter snows, her leaves bathed in life-cycling sunlight. She was in sight of others like her, embedded not only in their own introverted perches, but also in this kayak at the bottom of the Impassable Canyon. Which was indeed passable, albeit only via a whitewater conveyor belt, churning against the steep rock walls.

A bald eagle had soared upstream some lost-track number of mornings prior, minutes after I’d stepped off a prop plane and onto the dirt airstrip next to the river. A well-traveled, soulful voice advised that this bald eagle was a good omen for our journey through the largest swath of roadless land in the lower 48 states.

We’d seen an eagle every morning since that first sighting, followed by hours of joy, camaraderie, and peace. The omen was holding.

We need an eagle now, don’t we?

A few nights later we sat around a fire, trading songs on small guitars. He had the same traveling instrument I did, but we had more in common besides wires stretched across wood. He is me, twenty years ago, writing songs about loves lost and hopeful futures found, songs that were mine when I first discovered I could say something without having to actually say anything.

I told stories I hoped would help him. He listened. And we played.

We searched for a final song that would do honor to the folded linens of stars in the moonless sky. We plied through our fingered catalogues, until our voices echoed off the Impassable Canyon walls, a chorus about being free yet caught in the falling, the words of another precious life lost too soon, a reminder that none of us know which of these moments might be our last.

‘All we can do to honor these precious lives is just hold all of our loved ones tight and say what we mean, when we mean it.’


Bring on the eagle.