"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, May 27, 2013

Trail of Hearts

The trail, wide and dirt-packed, is reassuringly familiar every time I walk it. For the last two decades I've traveled this path, and while it changes predictably with each season, my seasons have extended one into the other much more slowly.

I was barely in my forties when we moved here, when I discovered the park, when I began exploring all it had to offer—the trail in particular. I was newly sober. I had not yet met Kathleen. I still believed that in leaving the cult, I had also left God behind, and any hope of ever being acceptable to him again. I went about creating as respectably normal a life as I could, a sort of substitute for God: teaching, being married, trying to find a place in my family of origin. We had a golden retriever, a handful of cats, and a cute cottage in the country.

There is no memory of the first walk in the park, or of any walk really except the most recent. Yet every time I set foot on this particular trail, I feel at home in away I don't anywhere else. The seasons present themselves in comforting symmetry.

Summer, my first season there, meant lush overarching greenery, sun-dappled shadows, the river singing in the distance, and each step accompanied by the chirps, whirs, and melodies of towhees, robins, juncos, song sparrows. Once, on an early morning stroll, a deer bounded across the path. At the beginning of the season, salmonberries offered sustenance. At the end of the season, it was plump wild blackberries.

I learned to anticipate the turning into fall when big leaf maples dropped giant yellow leaves onto the trail, at first one here and there, and then in thick blankets that invited kicking through. Vine maples flamed. The trail itself became dusty, all greens muted under shades of gray. Winter wrens arrived, and flocks of golden-crowned kinglets ringing like fairy bells in fir branches overhead.

When the rains began, bringing winter in, washing leaves and dust away, the trail's beauty shifted. Deciduous branches sketched stark shadows against gray skies. Views previously blocked by endless green revealed the river rolling wildly, its gentle summer song became giant's roar. Air nipped exposed skin. Breathing was like swallowing snow.

Just when it seemed winter would strip all color from life and the world, that it would be the final, permanent season, violets would appear in a certain spot, first as heart-shaped leaves, then flowering into delicate purple and white posies. At the same time robins returned in all their raucous glory. Shortly after, trilliums bloomed, then bleeding hearts, and false solomon's seal. And before I knew it, the cycle repeated once more, with variations from year to year, but mostly, reassuringly, the same.

I returned to the trail at the end of this last winter after a long absence caused by a very young and headstrong puppy and my failing hip.

That first walk this year was like returning home. The trail had not changed at all in the months without me. I was giddy with both my ability to walk pain-free and with the sense of connection to the seasons with a capital "s." I was also carrying the weight of a particularly harsh inner winter which seemed to not want to release its hold and step aside for a new season.

It was on one of those walks—the violets had already bloomed and gone, the trilliums were still in their prime, and baby pink bleeding hearts were just emerging from lacy green nests—that I first noticed the heart-shaped rock embedded in the bark of an ancient douglas fir tree.

At first I wondered if it had always been there, pushed up from the ground as the tree grew. But it was at eye level and tucked so neatly between the grooves of the bark, I knew someone had placed it intentionally. This rock was at the beginning of the trail and as I proceeded, wondering about its story, I noticed another. The next one was just as neatly tucked at eye level. Then it became a treasure hunt, and I was not disappointed. There was a pattern to the placement—always close to the trail, near eye level and tucked in the gnarled bark gullies of venerable old firs. More than two dozen stone hearts, sentinels along the trail, stretching from one end to the other.  

By the end of the trail, I was completely enchanted. An enchantment that followed me home that day and that electrifies my heart still. My winter began to lift. Wonder began to replace darkness. Curiosity about the story behind the trail of hearts seemed to open doors and windows I didn't realize were blocked.

A couple of weeks later the hearts were gone. Every last one. All at once. I still look for them. Create stories about them. Send gratitude to the hand that placed them and to the hand that directed my eyes to them.

I ponder my own trail of hearts, the seasons that led me to this particular spring. Sobriety stable. Kathleen passed through, our season together way too short. Still sorting out the complicated spiritual relationship that both led me to the cult and took me away from it, and that all these years later remains a mystery to me. Finally feeling at home in the life created to prove something that couldn't be proved, and that turns out to be more real and satisfying than I could ever have imagined.

My heart carries them all, the stone hearts and the seasons passed, with abundant room and eager anticipation for whatever the path brings next.