Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2017

This is part of a series featuring excerpts from a journal I keep on my time in Sedona, AZ, especially up on Bryan’s Mountain (Bell Rock to the rest of the world).  I put some of my youngest son Bryan’s ashes there under a tree in January 2007.  In 2016, Emmanuel House—the living memorial started in his honor by his oldest brother Rick and his wife Desiree—was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world. Emmanuel—”God with us”—was Bryan’s middle name.

BushBeetle-1bAugust 15.  This year, as part of his plan to be in the Zone of Totality for the eclipse, Aaron and family were in Illinois till August 12th, so I put off my trip out West until August 11th, flying first to visit Daniel’s family in Scott’s Valley, and not getting to Sedona until the evening of the 14th.  Today, therefore, is the latest day in August I’ve ever gone up to Bryan’s tree. My first Sedona picture is usually of his tree, but today as I spotted it in the distance my eyes were drawn to a bush about 40 yards before it. I know it well, but this year it was flowering more profusely than ever, and I stopped to take pictures of it, the one here featuring a bronze beetle climbing all over. Someone said it’s been a vigorous monsoon season, the flowers thick on this bush being proof.  We often use grasses as a symbol for transience: they blow in the wind and are gone.  But the grasses around Bryan’s tree, and especially the rock next to it, are thicker and taller than ever.  I think of Lewis Thomas’ first essay in his great book The Lives of a Cell.  “There is nothing fragile about the life on earth,” he writes, commenting on man’s tendency to imagine that he’s above nature.  “We are the fragile part,” he continues, “transient and vulnerable as cilia.”


Grandson Liam at Bryan's Tree.

Grandson Liam at Bryan’s Tree.

August 24.  We’ve dreamed for years of beginning to bring the grand kids out to share a week in Sedona with us, and 9-year old Liam, the oldest, was the first. He and Linda arrived on the 17th.  I’ve learned not to paint pretty pictures in my mind of the way things should go. You think kids—or anyone, really—will enjoy this hike, this restaurant, this song, etc., and they don’t, don’t, don’t. So I was hardly surprised when things didn’t seem right from the start.  Not that Liam didn’t enjoy most everything we did and call this the best vacation he’s ever had, but he also coughed and sniffed and went in and out of fevers.  We thought at first it was only him trying to adjust to this arid climate, which so many have problems doing, but this went on so long after we had gotten some nasal spray, nasal gel, cough drops, and more ibuprofen, that we finally spent about 3.5 hours at urgent care four days ago. They did a quick strep test just to make sure, and it came back negative.  But today Linda, calling from New Jersey just before flying back here, said the clinic called her saying the back-up culture they did came back positive!

Strep didn’t seem to hinder his enjoyment of the solar eclipse, which we experienced together at the Chapel on the Rock, where people shared their eclipse glasses with us to supplement the pin-hole viewers I had made the night before. (The glasses are SO much better.)  The family texted back and forth the whole time.  Aaron sent a shot right away and texted, “Wait til you see the others,” to which Daniel texted, “Did you crush it, Aaron?”


The next day we saw Meteor Crater, and the next the Grand Canyon, and Liam seemed duly impressed, though he still coughed what I thought was a deep cough, and his voice got so scratchy he was reduced to whispering.  “I kind of like it like that,” said Linda, who was met with a croaking, “Grandma, that’s rude!” But what he seemed really into the whole time was rocks.  He looked for them everywhere, and we visited three of Sedona’s fanciest rock shops, marveling over their prices. A day before our urgent care trip, Liam perked up from a fever episode when we stopped at a less expensive one, the Village Rock Shop just a half-mile from our place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about connections. Connecting to the first grandchild to visit, of course, but others, too.  On the shuttle ride up from Phoenix Sky Harbor to Sedona a young woman described how she’d had a tarot card reading, then headed up to experience the supposedly powerful vortex energy of Bell Rock.  As she started the main trail, a man suddenly appeared, pointing to a trail he said she should take so that she would arrive to find the exact kind of peace her tarot reader said she was after.  “One of those Sedona stories,” she said.

A famous saying here is, “There are no ‘coincidences’ in Sedona.”  Like today on Bryan’s Mountain I met a young couple from New Jersey just as Linda was flying back from there after taking Liam back home. Or even closer: on August 15th, the first time I went up to Bryan’s tree, I explained a “century plant bloom” to a couple, then when they said they were from Chicago, I asked, Where? And it hardly ruffled me when they said, “Naperville.” Nor did it surprise me that the woman drives by our old house twice daily on her way to and from work.  (Her husband grew up in Oak Park, every day walking past the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio where Linda now works.)

Our old house.

We just moved to Aurora a few months ago, so this year, sitting by Bryan’s tree, I’ve thought that it feels like my most solid home in the world, the geographical spot I most connect to.  I loved our old house in Naperville, and the neighborhood, too, with my bank a block away, and a Trader Joe’s two blocks away, and friends in each place. I’m lucky to have lived in such a beautiful space—our Naperville mid-century modern designed by Don Tosi—and now another one, a historic “farm house” just a door down from another beautiful mid-century modern, next to which is an original Frank Lloyd Wright house. Still, I haven’t quite connected to the new neighborhood, and, because I’ll still be at North Central College another year-and-a-half, I’ll sneak in as many trips to my old bank and my old Trader Joe’s as I can.  And I hope to finally take a picture of a house just about four blocks from our old house, and send it to the owner of the Village Rock Shop.

A couple of years ago I talked to Michael Silberhorn for the first time.  Just the usual Sedona conversation, full of coincidences.  First we determined that we either now lived, or used to live, in Naperville, not just in the Chicago area. “Where in Naperville?” Michael asked.  “On Gartner and Laurel.” “You mean in that house with the big prow window?!  I saw it every day at school.”  Turns out he grew up with his grandparents just four blocks away.  He smiled at the remembrance of Elmwood Elementary just a block from Gartner and Laurel. I turned to another couple in the store, half shouting, “You probably live in Naperville, too!” to which the woman said, “No, Peoria. But my boss graduated from North Central College!” This year, Michael turned a rock over in his hand a few times and said—almost mused—“I think I can do $30 for this one,” giving us a very good deal on a very unusual quartz crystal Liam and I had spotted.  “When I grow up,” said Liam, “I want to play hockey and own a rock shop.”

 Go to the Lead Post in the Climbing Bryan’s Mountain series.

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Stranger in the Village: Style and Rage

RageI, like many others, believe that James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” is the greatest essay ever written in English.  It’s scope, for one, is titanic.  It moves from a story of one black man’s experiences in a Swiss village to an analysis of the underpinnings of Western civilization, especially those that birth and nourish racism.  It is haunted by memories emanating from childhoods on Atlanta streets, slaves on the auction block, missionaries strolling African villages, gargoyles on the Cathedral at Chartres.  I will comment on these larger issues in “Stranger in the Village: Searching for Whiteness” but want to start here by looking closely at just one paragraph, partly for its content, but mostly—though this may seem minor to some—for the way Baldwin controls sound and rhythm.

“Stranger in the Village” is the concluding essay of Baldwin’s 1955 masterpiece Notes of a Native Son, and he places the paragraph in question about one-third of the way through:

Baldwin-sketch1“The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable; this rage, so generally discounted, so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is, is one of the things that makes history.  Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence and is therefore not susceptible to any arguments whatever.  This is a fact which ordinary representatives of the Herrenvolk, having never felt this rage an being unable to imagine it, quite fail to understand.  Also, rage cannot be hidden, it can only be dissembled.  This dissembling deludes the thoughtless, and strengthens rage and adds, to rage, contempt.  There are, no doubt, as many ways of coping with the resulting complex of tensions are there are black men in the world, but no black man can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare—rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of white men.  What is crucial here is that, since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white men of the jewel of his naivete, or else to make it cost him dear.”

The first part of the paragraph focuses on rage, and Baldwin loads it, sound-wise, with sibilants (mainly “s’s”) and plosives (like “t’s”), starting with the strange word “disesteemed.”  Rage hisses and explodes, especially in the sentence concluding the focus on rage:  “This dissembling deludes the thoughtless, and strengthens rage and adds, to rage, contempt.”  The rhythm begins by racing down the slope of rage, then slows (“and adds, to rage,”), then stops the glide cold with all  the bitterness of the isolated word “contempt,” the “t” explosive and final.  The next sentence brings in a new tone, perhaps best heard in the difference between the plosive—or “explosive”—sound of the “t” in “contempt” versus the cooler, more deliberative sound of the “t” in “doubt.”  This makes way for the cooler, liquid “l’s” in the words “resulting,” “complex,” “black,” “world,” “black” (again), “entirely,” “liberated,” “internal,” so that when Baldwin repeats “rage, dissembling, and contempt” the sibilants and plosives are this time more muted, surrounded as they are with liquid “l’s.”  The very sounds signify that rage can, in important ways, be dealt with by more than dissembling.  Black men can be calculating about it.  Dissembling isn’t just a reflex but an actual plan, the end of which is to “rob the white man of the jewel of his naivete, or else to make it cost him dear.”

WordSoundsArtists—especially the great ones—pay attention to these details.  The very sounds of words can embody the meanings he or she is attempting to convey, so that we receive the meanings of words not only as ideas but as bodily feelings.  Baldwin writes complex prose. The sentences are long, with ideas embedded in ideas embedded in other ideas.  And because he is also very ironic and full of unresolvable tensions—something I comment on in “Fearing and Embracing the Void”—to read Baldwin for just his ideas may be tough going for many.  But when you hear his rhythms, catch the way he designs the sounds of his most central passages, it begins to make more sense, or—in this paragraph especially—you understand in a more embodied, gut-level way that rage can’t ever be completely logical.  That’s part of its power and tragedy, a combination—power and tragedy—so potent that it creates history more than our puny, logical plans do.

  This article is part of two series:  A series on James Baldwin (its Lead Post entitled “All Things Baldwin“), and a series on The Arts of the Essay.

  Go to “Buckley vs. Baldwin” for more on the importance of sound, here especially the sound of Baldwin’s (and Buckley’s) voice.

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Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2016 – Part 1

This is Part 1 of my 2016 journal excerpt from the series “Climbing Bryan’s Mountain.” Part 2 features a Video of a bike ride slogging up to and zooming down from Bryan’s Mountain, otherwise known as Bell Rock, an iconic formation in Sedona, AZ.



July 28.  For some reason the Oak Creek Estados, our condo complex, no longer allows the Arizona Shuttle to drop people off here.  I asked the driver about this, and he called into the office to get permission to do so just this once.  I was occupied with this change until I stepped off the shuttle and looked up. I kept looking up every chance I got as I hauled my suitcases into our little Arizona home.  Next day I biked up to Bryan’s Mountain (what most people call Bell Rock) and sent this text to family and friends: “I arrived last night under a spectactular sky, the Milky Way arcing brilliant overhead. But it’s been a frantic year and I felt hurried and unsettled all night and morning until I dropped all the unpacking, cleaning, rearranging and biked back up to Bryan’s tree. I’m beginning to settle down. I think it’s because he still speaks to me up here from some eternity that shows how small time is and also most of what we worry about. Love to you all from Bryan’s mountain.”

Last year when I got here I found an April issue of Kudos (a local paper) that one of our guests had left.  It carried a front-page story about the Village of Oak Creek going for Dark Sky status, one of only seven cities, including Sedona, so designated.  (It got it.) But last year there were either clouds or a bright full moon wiping out starry brilliance, so that I was a full five days into my stay before I got my first magnificent sky. Not this time. A magnificent sky always brings back one of my strongest memories of Bryan. The first night we spent in the condo when we brought Bryan and Mike with us to help rehab it, Bryan and I sat on the patio looking up, stunned at a sky so bright and deep and alive.  He kept saying, “It’s crazy we have a place here. Crazy.”  Every night, brilliant sky or not, I step out on our patio and remember.

Sedoona-DroneAugust 24.  At least once during our stay Linda and I climb up to Bryan’s Mountain to have dinner by his tree, trying to time it so we get here just at the height of sunset when the mountains glow with amazing bright reds and deep oranges. Airport Mesa supposedly has the best sunset view and every evening you’ll find dozens, or hundreds, of tourists there, but for us nothing beats the sunset we see on Bryan’s Mountain.  So a couple of nights ago we’re there munching on snacks and sandwiches when suddenly a drone appears about 100 feet over our heads. Its owner has been flying it around the mountain but has definitely stopped to have it look at us.  We laugh and wave and see some lights or lenses seem to focus on us, then seem to nod at us before it zooms off.  Shortly afterwards another drone zips over our heads, not stopping as it shoots down SDN2015 (102)bthe mountain side before disappearing into some short pines below.  And today while biking up there I ran into three people—father, mother, son—just putting their drone away into a impressive looking padded carrying case.  The father’s a photographer.  He said he’d send me a pic, but since he seems to want to sell some of these aerials, I doubt I’ll ever hear from him. It seems I should say something about technology intruding, spoiling nature and our few precious moments in it, but that just seems heavy.  One of these days maybe I’ll get a drone myself and fly it around up here, and when the first drone seemed to wink and nod at us when we were having dinner we just laughed.

 Go to the Lead Post in the “Climbing Bryan’s Mountain” series.

 In 2016 Emmanuel House, the organization started as a living memorial to Bryan by Rick and Desiree Guzman, was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

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