Season 3 Episode 30: Julie Riso on Awakening to Nature

“Each day brings a new surprise – another songbird’s voice, new buds emerge, and, finally, wildflowers. Marsh marigolds first, then violets. The …

Season 3 Episode 30: Julie Riso on Awakening to Nature

Rebecca Budd, some of you know her as “Clanmother”, was one of the first bloggers I met on WP. This is going on ten years now, back when I had my Budapest photo blog and this here blog didn’t yet exist. Rebecca is one of the most prolific bloggers that I know, both as a creator and a reader/commenter. I’ve had readers tell me how much they appreciate her insights.

Rebecca also does a weekly podcast- Tea, Toast, & Trivia – with an eclectic blend of guests and topics. She’s the only one who has managed to coax me into a recorded conversation. This is far out of my comfort zone. I’m a writer, not a talker. The podcast, entitled “Awakening to Nature”, is around 15 minutes. Please feel free to mosey on over to her place via the link. Comments are closed here but you are very welcome to share your thoughts over there.

The Journey

Beijing, China - April 2016

A massive red wall rises before me. Mao's image hangs on high, watching over all. A soldier stands motionless, eyes squeezed shut against the sun. An endless stream of bodies shuffle forward, phones held high in reverence. One does not visit Beijing without visiting The Forbidden City. The tourists file into the belly of the beast. Hundreds and hundreds of individuals. I turn away and walk against the flow. Not today, thanks.

Those tremors of excitement are contagious. Vibrations that emanate from one body to the other. But: is it because of the history, or because it's famous?

I felt them, too, long ago. It made up for the unsettling numbness inside. Why didn't I feel what I was supposed to feel? What was I doing wrong? There were few famous sites that truly interested me. I went because I was told that this is what one does when one visits ___(insert city here)___.

Paris 1988. The Louvre. The line to see the Mona Lisa stretched down the long corridors. We shuffled forward, a listless procession. And then, there she was, hanging on a wall behind a wall, way behind a glass window. Each person had just enough time for a glimpse before we were ordered to move along. Do I feel like my life is richer for that glimpse? Nope.

And yet, it was not time wasted. Sometimes you have to experience what you don't want to realize what it is that you do want.

I want. To inhabit a place with all my spirit. With every step, every glance, every breath, every sensation.

Paris 1999. Drifting through the streets. Cafes and street art. The little rituals of daily life. The philosophical grafitti scrawled on the metro. The soft pride I felt when I realized that I could understand it. The language that was blossoming into my second.

After the obedience came the period of defiance. Disdain. The deliberate avoidance of the Must See lists. But that didn't last long. Let people be as they wish. There is no perfect way to travel. It's all good.

And so I drift. Until Beijing feels like home. It never takes long, anymore.

Off the main drag and through a vibrant portal. They call these little alleys hutongs. This is where life happens. Tiny teahouses and cafes: battered metal tables and plastic chairs on the sidewalk. The tangy aroma of seafood enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke and grease. The rasp of brooms sweeping pavement. The language, so birdlike. Emphatic chirps that pierce the air. Weave in and out of bicycles and carts and cats and dogs. Watch where you step.

This impossible shade of red, everywhere. Like blood, like love.

 

Shop owners lean in doorways or sit on steps. Their heads turn to watch me pass. One waves and calls out, “Where are you from?"

I halt, perplexed. Where am I from, anymore? America, my birth country? France, my adopted nationality? Czech Republic, my current place of residence? Outer Space? Inner Space? The same point of origin from which each human comes into being? Everywhere and nowhere?

“France,” is what flies out of my mouth in reply. I'm traveling on my French passport. It's as good of a response as any.

“Bonjour!” He flashes a tea-stained grin.

I smile and bow my head. “Nĭ hăo”. And mosey along.

On the right, a crimson gateway beckons. The Confucius Temple. I'd hoped I'd find my way here.

The noise from the hutong soon recedes. Once again, I've found the quiet place in the chaos. The solitude in the hive. I peer into the face of this holy man. Set in stone for eternity.

What would you like to say to me, Confucius? Would you say that we are all one? All the same? That's what we're told we're supposed to feel in order to be considered spiritually evolved. But I don't. I know almost nothing about you, or your words, but somehow I feel you'd understand this.
I venture deep into the complex. Through the multi-colored temples. I pause and peer into a koi pond. The fish float motionless. They glow like coins in a wishing well.

We all draw from the same reservoir of thought. Some stand on the edge, completely dry. Some wade in. Others submerge themselves. Luxuriate in the depths. And, in so doing, find treasure.

Shrill music emanates from the back of the complex. I drift back there and peek around a corner. A group of young girls are practicing traditional dance. The teacher, a young man, sashays back and forth, hands on his slim hips. He disappears out of my line of sight. The traditional music comes to an abrupt halt. Chinese pop music takes its place. The teacher pirouettes, and claps his hands, pumping his long arms up and out. The girls imitate his steps, giggling. And then, one by one, they find their unique groove.

I watch, unseen. This hidden little corner is worth more than any famous monument. I turn away and head back through the complex. I pause, once again before a pearly white statue. A face, so inscrutable. A jolt seizes me. It softens into a gentle glimmer of pride. I bow one more time.

All those years ago, I set out to discover myself. That journey will never end, and I don't want it to. And yet, I believe I have succeeded.

Roads were made for journeys, not destinations – Confucius

Beneath the Winter

There is a time, in February or March, when the winds turn warm and the sun dispels the gray. The snow recedes. A glimmer of hope, a hesitant smile. Is it finally over? Put the boots and heavy coats away. Throw open the windows. But the gray gates slam shut again and the wind howls with laughter. Soggy snowflakes bury the earth. There is always snow on the Day of Fools. The Spring of Deception, this phenomenon is called. I fall for it every time. Maybe I’m a fool, but at least my heart is still capable of hope. 

But this year is different. It doesn’t matter that it won’t last. The obligatory snow of April Fool’s is a mere dusting. The warmth persists. I fill my lungs with the rich aroma of thawing earth. We deserve this.

A lot goes on in these woods, but I keep most of it to myself. The ravens, especially, always lead me into deeper territory. Springtime’s blossoms and birdsong overshadow the death that also abounds this time of year. That which reawakens is disoriented. So easy to stagger into the path of disaster. And the new life, the babies. So sweet and fragile. One mistake and the life that could have been is finished.

Then there are the bones that resurface, a reminder that it takes a very long time for some things to disintegrate into dust.

What lies beneath my winter? I do not avert my eyes, no matter how uncomfortable the revelation. The intricacies of self-sabotage are revealed. It feels as though I’m standing on the precipice of happiness. But there has been so much disappointment, so much deception. When we ask/hope/wish, are we not relying on an external force to deliver? Maybe the person in the mirror is the one who holds the key. I’m tired of punishing myself for some long-buried, unfairly-assumed childhood shame. But maybe I don’t really want some of the things that continue to elude me. Perhaps, somewhere underneath, I know it’s for my own good. There is no time left to squander. As if there ever was. Be very, very clear on what you want and give yourself permission to have it. I peer into this blurry reflection in the snow-swollen current. Who we are is ever-changing. Momentary glimpses are swept away. 

In northern Michigan, true spring hesitates, in love with its own slumber. A gradual awakening, excruciating languor. Patience, patience. That which takes the most time to come into being is the most profound. Cherish the sweet unfolding. 

Each day brings a new surprise – another songbird’s voice, new buds emerge, and, finally, wildflowers. Marsh marigolds first, then violets. The drowsy flight of butterflies and bumblebees. Awaken, sleepyheads. The bewildered emergence of the little furry ones. They stare at me with curiosity, and then skitter away, remembering that my kind is to be feared.

The early petals wither while new blooms unfurl. Each one more flamboyant than the last. 

And, finally, the White Queens return and the woods become Wonderland. Soon it will be summer.

The freshest green of leaves about to burst from their buds is the most delightful color of all. A warm rain, a new morning. And everything that brought you to this stage of becoming is already a memory.

It was two years ago, I believe. During morel time. I had fled to my favorite place on the river. A place I savor every spring. By June the stinging nettle and thistle form an impenetrable barrier, barring my access until winter. Across the meadow and through the forest. Along the low bluffs. I startled a fawn that had been sleeping in a patch of tall grass. It scampered into the woods, bawling. I looked down at the ground, a wrench in my heart. A pair of ravens called back and forth to each other from the treetops, one on each side of the river.

And then I saw them, just under my feet. Out in the open, on the river bank, poking up through cedar needles and moss. There are strategies for hunting these culinary treasures. Look around fruit trees after the first warm rain, they say. And so on. But, in reality, morels grow wherever they please. They spilled out of my sweatshirt as I gathered them up. The turmoil of earlier that day lost all of its power. The ravens’ voices became more urgent. I paused and peered into the trees. The tone was unfamiliar, so full of despair. Something was happening. Were they angry with me? More gathered in the skies, circling and calling. I cradled the morels in my arms and headed towards home. I passed through a copse of poplars, scaring up about a dozen ravens that had been sitting in silence in the canopy. Waiting. I froze as the shadows flew over my head. 

When I crossed the meadow, I understood. On the far side, a raven swooped and fell to the earth. Another called down to it. It mustered the strength to lift off. Two smaller birds flew at it in attack. It dipped and nearly fell again. Two ravens ran the other birds off. They coaxed their injured one into the woods. Dozens of others followed. A grim procession.

I paused in the middle of the meadow and bowed my head in respect. When a raven is dying, its family gathers around it, keeping it company until it passes through the doorway to Home. It will not leave this Earth alone. I could have lingered or tried to capture it on film, but I’d always respected their wishes to not be photographed. As if I could if I tried. I headed up the trail, haunted and humbled. The requiem receded. My ears hummed in its absence. The world of humans loomed ahead. I took a deep breath. Yes, I often falter, but I somehow manage to take flight.

“It was good to finally know that the spirit is everywhere rather than a separate thing. I’ve been lucky to spend a life pretty close to the earth up here in the north. I learned in those three days that the earth is so much more than I ever thought it was. It was a gift indeed to see all sides of everything at once. This makes it real hard to say good-bye. My family will be with me just like that old raven falling slowly down through the tree.”

– Jim Harrison, Returning to Earth