A Love Song for Philip Pullman (or, a cure for melancholy)

“We should act as if the universe were listening to us and responding; we should act as if life were going to win. We should act as if we were celebrating a wedding; we should act as if we were attending the marriage of responsibility and delight.”
(“Talents and Virtues”)

This is what I love about Philip Pullman’s work. The contrary, stubborn, idealistic, eyes-wide-open way he insists that our purpose is to love the world. We, his heroines, heroes, and readers, must resist all signs of the contrary and love the world. Not blindly, but consciously. Especially when the world does not seem to deserve it.

As I read this accidental essay over, out loud to myself on a crowded plane flying homeward from my home, I realized I may need to explain what kind of love I mean:

The love of exploring and of letting things grow, is how I mean. Of watering and cataloguing. Of naming stars and observing molecular structures through a microscope, and running to the lake to swim in the rain while everything feels gray and still.

“Our purpose is to understand and to help others understand, to explore, to speculate, to imagine — to increase the amount of consciousness in the universe. And that purpose has a moral force. It means that it is wrong, it is wicked, to embrace ignorance and to foster stupidity.” (“The Republic of Heaven”)

The love of asking what’s this and why and does it have to be this way.

I think that seems like a fine kind of love. It’s as Carl Sagan said — we are a way for the universe to know itself.

Mr Pullman and I are both atheists. I’m strongly influenced by a high school obsession with Existentialism, in which there is no divine meaning.

If you’re unfamiliar with Pullman’s work and philosophy, it’s important to know that the Republic of Heaven of which he speaks so passionately is not a religious one. There is no divinity to be found there because we do not need one. Instead, the Republic Lyra and Will and Pan and Keirjava strive to create (and that I think _we_ should strive to create) is one that is kind, joyful, wondrous, and deeply humanist.

I love his work deeply.

A great many things have changed in me and around me. Recently in particular. But this has been a project of years, of eternity. It is a project that will continue for years, for eternity.

I am moving toward joy.
May I never abandon curiosity.
I am moving, always, toward love.
Even when I abandon it.

“[T]he challenge remains to be answered: to reclaim a vision of heaven from the wreck of religion; to realise that our human nature demands meaning and joy just as Jane Eyre demanded love and kindness (‘You think we can live without them, but we cannot live so’); to accept that this meaning and joy will involve a passionate love of the physical world, this world, of food and drink and sex and music and laughter, and not a suspicion and hatred of it; to understand this it will grow out of and add to the achievements of the human mind such as science and art.” (“The Republic of Heaven”)

I am un-building, brick by brick, these walls of fear and anxiety. I am un-building the Puritan shame and horror of pleasure. I do this with your help and the help of my dæmon.

As I move from the place I am to the place I will be, I am building, brick by brick, the Republic of Heaven.

While, yes, I’m doing it, it cannot be done alone. I do this with your help, because we are connected to each other through the Republic and to the very universe itself.

Mr Pullman explains this better than I can, tired from so much change and travel and worries both real and imagined.

Love is that, too. Connection to another and the universe beyond. Joy is that. That is what I mean when I saw I walk toward joy.

I don’t expect to be happy. I’d like to be happy. But that doesn’t seem to be a goal worth achieving. So, instead, I move toward joy. A feeling of contented connection. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll explain that better someday. Maybe these aren’t the words I mean at all. Maybe I will regret sharing them before they were ready. But I’m tired now.

I’d rather go back to daydreaming with my dæmon.

So I’ll share them, these kneaded words not quite risen. Do with them as you will.

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“Are you still writing?”

“Are you still writing?”

Yes –

and no.

Writing isn’t my job anymore, but I write every day. Notes to myself in notebooks I keep close to my side, away from prying eyes. I write hopes and fears and to-dos and notes and lines of code.

Even I, though, wonder why I no longer write here.

In everything I write, there is a thing that I am writing about that I do not speak of. That I refuse to articulate. Whether it’s love or loss or a half hidden anxiety disorder, there is always something huge under the surface.

I write like an iceberg.

That’s why my style jumps from place to place, why I pull in poems and speeches and works of art. Like funhouse mirrors, they obscure as much as they reveal.

One of those chiaroscuri still lives where you wonder if there’s a shape in the darkness or if it’s your imagination. In the changing light, the shadows cast by paint strokes seem to move.

Like me at a party, I flicker from place to place, nervous energy in perpetual motion. If I keep moving, only the dedicated will be able to keep up. If I keep writing, I can keep speaking the truth without ever having to consider that you’ll hear it.

Every once in a while I will claim a corner and sit on the back porch railing and give you a piece of my mind, bold and invulnerable under the night sky.

∆∆

What am I not writing about now?

I’m not writing about how I can’t keep running, how I can’t keep moving. How I must, for my life, be still and focused.

See, I want something. I want something so badly that last winter I said no to ski dates more often than I said yes. I said no to the mountains and woods and freedom more often than I said yes. (Should I have said yes? These things are medicine, but they are also time. I do not feel like I have enough time, although I whisper the words my partner tells me: “The universe loves and supports you in all that you choose to do, and you have an abundance of time.” Whisper that to yourself. Try it right now. Whisper it with the almost cliché, embarrassing sincerity that forces you to believe it.)

See, I am going to be a professional programmer.

I say that now.

“Hi. I’m Liz. I am going to be a developer. It’s nice to meet you.”

See, I am already a developer. I write things. Code is just another kind of poetry, and I’m probably better at writing Javascript than iambic pentameter.

I’m not writing about that because it’s not interested in writing about it yet. For a long while, I was pretty bad at it. And then less bad. And so on. It will be a good story in retrospect, but right now, I’m in the middle of it.

Perspective makes the heart grow fonder because the view is more expansive, like an aperture opening to welcome in more light.

The things that are, perhaps, the most interesting to write about aren’t things that I really want to write about. It’ll either be too much or too little.

For me, I mean. I won’t be so arrogant as to dictate to you what your definition of lagom is. Define that for yourself.

I have miles to go.

∆∆

Shall I write about this – this morning after our walk, Nova jumped on the couch next to me. And after a few minutes of pets, she lay down and pushed her head into my lap (tentatively) and I screeched and massaged until she fell asleep with the weight of her pressed into me.

We camped a few weekends ago, and when it was time to sleep she curled into a tight ball next to me. I draped a vest over her back to ward off the chill. I wished she would come into the bag with me as I tried in vain to curl into a ball, too.

Doesn’t work the same in a sleeping bag.

I bought a new sleeping bag last week. One with enough room for me to tuck my legs up. There’s room for her, too, I think, if she ever does want to come in.

A few days later we slept half the night on the back porch, warm breeze like a balm. She curled up with me then, too, even though she could have slept sprawled out on the whole bed.

This is enough, but it’s all so saccharine, don’t you think? With each step we take together, I add more to my love song to Nova, my heart’s own companion. But sugar isn’t interesting alone.

I stare out of the window on gray days, daydreaming of Faerûn and Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms.

I wonder if I should drink more.

I wonder if my grandmother was a Swedish citizen and if she was, if I would be able to claim citizen by birthright. I am made for high lands.

I press “pay now” on my very last student loan payment.

I’m building soil, I tell myself. One does not become a developer in a day.

I am certain of this. Nothing and no one will deter me.

Backcountry Skiing with Dogs (or, I want to write about heaven)

“I want to write.”

Has your brain ever spoken to you so loudly that it feels like a voice external to you speaking?

Last night, in the dark, where just a moment earlier I had been falling asleep, came the not-sound, insistent.

“I want to write.”

I haven’t stopped writing. I write a dizzying number of emails. My journal is never far from my side. And yet, I don’t write.

Instead, the evenings and weekend hours when I would have written, I still write but I swap one language for another.

Javascript.

∆∆

I’m sure I’ll talk about that more some other time. For now, suffice to say, even in this moment when I’m writing (finally), I feel the guilt.

I’m writing, but I’m not coding. I’m not studying. I’m not working toward something.

Am I?

∆∆

Let’s not get distracted.

∆∆

Nova is curled up, a tight bun shape, on the couch. She’s tired because yesterday she ran.

Oh, how she ran!

We – my boyfriend, my dog, and I – went to St Vrain. There’s less snow than when he and I went last year, but the snow that is feels surprisingly soft. No melt freeze crust to punch through, just snow wind packed.

When I got Nova, I resigned myself to having a dog that might never be allowed off leash. Huskies aren’t known for their penchant for sticking around. But there is something else in her. And this other side is what I wanted – obedient, responsive, a white shadow at my heel.

Granted, she doesn’t actually know “heel.”

She is a mix of these things. A snow dog that loves to run and wander. An independent spirit who checks back to make sure I’m still there. Who learns quickly to run behind the skier, just to one side. Who comes when called – eventually.

But who gets distracted and has to be gone back for, calling her name as I carry my skis back up the skin track until rounding the corner I see her, just at the next corner up, looking down to be sure it’s me.

IMG_3978

Can I try to tell you what it felt like to see her running with me?

I have new skis, new bindings, new boots, and new skins. I’ve skinned up this path on St Vrain before, but never with such comparative ease. The pain in my knee that plagued and crippled me all last winter, gone. The weight of my old equipment dragged me down and held me back. The right, light gear seemed to propel me forward.

And a white dog ducking in and out of the woods. She alternated between trotting along on the skin track and wiggling through the deep snow on her belly.

We hadn’t broken tree line when we decided to turn around for the day, but discomfort in my right foot (the previously broken foot) and rising wind speeds made the decision easy.

My partner and I switched to downhill, and so did she.

We alternated, finding it best to keep the dog between us as we skied.

When it was my turn to ski first, she ran at my tails as if she knew the command for “heel.”

She ran just at my periphery. A tilt of my head and there she was, tongue out and charging.

When we stopped to let her catch her breath, she dove into deeper snow. When we started again, she was there, running at the heel of whichever of us was first.

In me, with skis on my feet and dog at my heel, the sense of Vonnegut’s heaven; everything is beautiful and nothing – not my knee, not my tweaked shoulder, not my mind – hurt.

∆∆

You would rather wake with a cold nose in a cold car than this.

It’s been a while, and it will be a little while longer before I have anything new to share.

So, how about this instead. A note I just rediscovered. I wrote it after the events of this post.

That thing when you disappear into the hills with your dear and your phone dies but you have your dog and you let her eat bacon grease and lick the last of the soup. Then when you go back to civilization the car ride makes her stomach roil and protest. Then a fire alarm battery wakes you up at 3:00am and then her stomach wakes you at 3:30am and you don’t know what’s worse the beeping or the gurgling as you stumble, limping heavily with sleep.

But then on your back, your dear asleep, heavy with sleep, you can’t sleep. You can’t fall back to sleep.

So, you think of limping to the car with the dog and driving back and letting your phone die and sleeping through the sunrise. You would rather wake with a cold nose in a cold car than this.

Morning Rescues

I named my dog after an explosion – for the flash of light, a sudden brightness, that occurs when one of the stars in a binary system syphons matter off of the other. The rapid fusion of hydrogen causes the brightening of the star, visible light years away. This is called a nova.

I named my dog for a star, but Nova has given me the sunrise.

She and I went for a run. We went for a little over two miles before she started to lag and I turned us toward home.

Once we got in the door, I refilled her water bowl. I set out her kibble. Then I stepped through my morning. Small talk with a roommate. A hot shower, finger combing my hair. Through it all, I felt light, bright.

I never used to feel this way so early in the mornings. But I feel this way now.

Not every day, of course. Some mornings the sound of her tags jingling at 6 am elicits a groan as I drag myself, dizzy from sleep. This usually happens when an upset stomach or too much water has her waking me up at midnight, 3 am, 4 am.

But it’s anything, anytime for her.

Mornings aren’t so bad when I spend the first hour with no one but her. Her and me and the sunrise to the east and the alpenglow to the west and the neighborhood foxes glaring from the scrub line.

And the rabbits, of course. They are Nova’s favorite part.

Thank you, Nova Pop. You rescue me every morning.

A Better Way to Be Afraid (Or Mars in Retrograde II)

Above is the video. Below is the final version of my script. I did a pretty good job of remaining faithful to it. Enjoy.


In Utah, there is a place called Goblin Valley. It is a forest of hoodoos – pillars of sandstone and silt that tower above you.

My friend and I slipped into the valley as the park was closing and the stars were rising. We were looking for the entrance to Goblin’s Lair – a slot canyon, a crack hidden among the hoodoos. We didn’t find it. Instead, we got lost. For hours. In the dark.

This is important: When I was little, I was afraid of the dark. But lost in Goblin Valley that night, I took my friend’s arm and said – Look at the stars. That one’s mars. It’s in retrograde. Do you know what that means?

We found Goblin’s Lair the next morning, under the desert sun. It is a gaping hole in the ground that marks a drop of 90 feet from ceiling to floor.

And there I was, standing at the top. My back pressed against a hoodoo. Shaking.

My friend sets the anchor. He hands me the belay device – but it’s one I’ve never seen before yet alone used and I am shaking too hard. I can’t even focus my eyes. So, he sets it up for me.

He starts toward the edge and I am standing there, watching him back up and I can’t hold it in and I said – wait. I’m afraid of heights. You might have to talk me through this.

He looks up and without hesitation says: I will not be able to talk you through this.

I have learned something about being afraid, because I am always afraid. Fear stands at my shoulder, just beyond my vision. Or it stands before me, an ominous hole in the floor.

Here’s something else I know. I hate the phrase “face your fears.” It’s an old cliché and it’s a dick thing to say to someone whose fight or flight response has gone so out of whack that they are frozen in place. It’s not for anyone to say when you are frozen in place.

Besides. How do you face something you can’t see?

Remember. I’m afraid of heights, and I am standing at the mouth of a precipice.

I hear my friend’s voice shout off rappel, I’m looking at the pillars. I’m thinking – I could walk out of here. But I decide that the only way out is down.

I attach the belay device and I lock and unlock and lock and unlock and lock the carabiner just the way I locked and unlocked and locked the doors of my house when I was a child.

And I move toward it – I move toward the hole that is a metaphor for a thousand other fears.

But I do not face it. Oh hell – no I do not face it. I get on my hands and knees. And I crawl. Backwards.

I refused to look down. I refused to look away from the sandstone under my hands. Until I was no longer pressed against the wall. Until the rope took all of my weight. Until I was suspended in the middle of the cavern.

Hanging there, I looked up. I looked down. I looked around.

And it was beautiful. The light illuminated the cavern from above and made the walls glow as red as Mars.

There are things that you do not have to be afraid of, but you are afraid of them anyway.

Someone asked me recently if I had finally learned to avoid the things that make my heart pound and my head spin.

I had to laugh because the short answer is no. The long answer is of course not.

Because I can’t imagine what my life would be without dropping cliffs on skis, descending too fast on bicycles, asking him out on a date, or standing in front of a crowd, speaking my own words for the very first time.

Fear, I find, is as alluring as it is repelling.

Move toward it.

Not all of the time. Not every time.

I could make that rappel for the same reason that I can stand here tonight – because I appear to  retreat. I go home and I sit in my safe house and read my safe books and whisper safe words into the leaves of my plants for days. Weeks. Once I did this for months.

Then, when I’m ready. I go out. I do this as often as I can. Even if I have to get on my hands and knees. Especially if I have to move backwards.

Do this.

Because, as e.e.cummings wrote, even stars walk backwards. Even Mars, god of war, appears to move backwards. That’s the definition of retrograde.

∆∆


To read the original blog post that inspired the talk, go here.

To read my initial post-Ignite reflections, go here.

(Photo by Ignite Boulder.)