In Brief, 2021: What the Brain Does

As per the usual birthday post, here we go…

Content warning: violence, suicide, grief

Tent and trees, Glacier NP.

[Related: In Brief, 2020: Child Again]

Part 1: Journal entries, with edits

January 3rd, 2021: Can a soul be two places at once? Away from your body? Your feet in one place, soul in another — does it stay when you leave? All of it? Part of it? Often? Everywhere? Endless puzzle pieces left about the land, every thin place connected — am I just slowly unraveling until there is no more soul to give, all given back, me, all that was once borrowed from the earth; and earth, too, a borrowed gathering in this universe, in the hole of time, in the shape of everything we were and will ever be…unraveling back, back, back…

January 6th, 2021: I dreamt a lot last night. Grandpa was the most memorable. We were gathered as a family and I suddenly noticed he was there, talking in full sentences, perfectly. The stroke had gone. I was excited and turned to whoever was near me, maybe Patrick or Michael. We were so happy. Grandpa came over to us to chat. He’d come back to life. The day we thought he’d died was just a close call. He described it (paraphrased): “I was holding your hand and suddenly I was a part of everything.”

…But other parts of the dream had to do with Dad’s house. I’d been sleeping in the family room and Patrick got up to watch a movie with Grandma. The house was so clean and empty. Then something had to do with the backyard, and my siblings, I think. Or rather, the neighborhood. We’d gone down the street to someone else’s house and Rene went in to say hello, while the rest of us for some reason hid in the garage or front walkway. Ah – I remember, we were wanting a potted plant and the woman had an incredible collection. And Mom was there, too. Yes, even in the house, laying on the couch with Grandma and Patrick during the movie. Mom suggested a spindly plant with purple flowers, one that dangled like cupped gemstones. Irises – they were like iris bells.

Red Rock. Photo: Amy Marchisio

January 9th, 2021: Afterlife -> the human experience/comandment of it vs other animals and plants. What is that transition like? What is the inclusivity of soul? Of consciousness?

I had many more strange dreams last night, but I don’t remember much. The one thing I do is of a man’s voice, saying, “This one,” and the feeling of a knocking upon a door, a tap, really, with the knuckle of a finger. All this took place right at the moment I was awoken (in real life) by a strange knock upon the wall above my head.

We recently started watching a docu-series about surviving death, mediums, ghosts, etc. Hence the contemplation about how this relates to the rest of the natural world. Obviously, indigenous cultures have a lot to say about that. But it made me think about Grandpa and the earlier dream I had.

[Edit: like the thought of my mom, Patrick, and that room existing on the same dream plane, when in real life she was gone 5.5 years by the time I met Patrick; and the room with the TV is a setting from my childhood, one that hasn’t looked the way it often appears to me for more than two decades — amazing what the brain does, folding people and places together that never would have otherwise.]

Boulder, CO

January 10th, 2021: Dream: a violent encounter.

A man posing as a security guard plots outside the hotel window devoid of a screen. I peer at him speaking to the small man who has dropped off the finished (rebuilt) Jeep. Maybe they know each other. The guard begins to crawl through the window and Patrick and I are seated on the bed. The guard pulls out his gun and I flinch, feel such a deep fear. Then it becomes a strange game. He tosses his gun toward us and it sits there between P and I, and we both stare at it wishing to take it, wondering why we’re not. It’s the fear, the helplessness. Two other men wait by the window. The guard takes back the gun, tosses business cards our way for the truck company that delivered our Jeep. I don’t remember anything that was said, but the moment finally came: he shot at P first, hitting him somewhere in the left shoulder region and in my crying retreat, arms flailing to cover my face, 3 shots. One clips my left pinky, one somewhere near my side, one into the lower abdomen, in the region of my left ovary. I don’t recall feeling much pain, more fear than anything, a numbness. If there is a next, I don’t remember. We had somehow survived and I was recounting all the details to friends. Calling the police was fruitless; they didn’t believe us.

Earlier, however, I had been dreaming as if I was some academic philosopher, a professor writing a thesis for a paper. It had to do with Earth but now I don’t remember the phrases or new terms I was supposed to remember. [Edit: After a freewrite to rattle the brain, I ended up writing down phrases like “earth apathy,” “earth neophilia,” “earth neuropathy.”]

January 12th, 2021: Several days ago, P and I curiously sat in the bedroom with a lit candle in a small glass jar, home-made by a friend. P and I held hands, were cross-legged on the bed, candle on the floor. We daringly asked for loved ones to change the flame, make it bigger perhaps. Patrick spoke a small prayer and listed off names, beginning with his grandparents. Each time, we observed the candle with pause. It was very still, almost a picture. Then he began naming my own losses. I began to cry, warmth burning from my chest, flush with grief. Mom. Grandpa. Then the candle began to flicker like a book flipping pages, the flame small but now moving, animated. Patrick sat there repeating OMG over and over again. The animation stopped, so picturesque again. Silence.

But then it flicked oddly. Like candles normally would and the magic of the moment was lost. Well, had we or not? Maybe the magic was only in our suspended belief. Of course it was. But did it, could it, exist in the plane of fire, light, and candle, too? Beyond us, without us?

Sierra Nevada

Part 2: No one wants to read every journal entry

“There is a futility in trying to find yourself in a landscape, much like the futility of trying to find meaning in [an] unfinished letter.” – Heather Marx, in a book review for Jessica J. Lee’s, Two Trees Make a Forest.

Or, perhaps, in a dream.

The majority of my journal entries for 2021 are actually notes: from having read something or watched something or listened to panels of people talking about worldly and intracultural affairs. I quote a lot of people, writers, advocates. And, of course, I wrote about my dreams.

February 10th, 2021: A couple nights ago, I had what is probably considered an actual nightmare. My mother’s body had been found wrapped and tucked between the garage door and the garage ceiling of my Dad’s house. Dark felt blankets unwrapped. She had been vacuum-sealed in plastic, nude, pink and rashed. We peeled the plastic back. The premise/context of the dream is that she had disappeared, we were looking, Dad shook the open garage door and she shook free, that she had committed suicide. But how? There was a second mother in my dream, like a clone. I went to her and whispered, “Did you help her?” Asked how one could wrap themselves in such a way. But the moment of horror came when Dad was again peeling the plastic away and her body was a bloody thing. I was overcome with grief, I wanted to cry out in a way I’d never felt before. Absolute, hysterical horror.

Chuckwalla/Mojave Desert

February 22nd, 2021: I had a long, interesting yet complicated dream. The end was the most poignant, however. I was laying in a room somewhere staring out the window. Blue sky and some sort of tree or large bush with flowers, dozens of them or so, all bobbing around in the wind. I could hear the wind, see the petals fold and crinkle. They were almost pompoms of petals, very dense and yellow. But the sunlight would change and let you see how some of the flowers were actually red, some half-red or tinted, like a rosé — implying a seasonal shift from yellow to red, like a leaf, red as maples in the East. The sun would shift, almost washing out the reds like hot light too bright; the flowers shapeshifted like the wind did. And that’s when I had the thought.

“I can’t believe I thought this would work. This isn’t even Earth.”

this -> referring to other almost spy-like and evasion-oriented aspects of the dream I’d had up to that point. And it made sense. The scene and the way the window looked were not of the U.S. It felt far away. I don’t even know how to describe how I knew or read this from the details. The flowers, though, they were so hypnotizing. But I should clarify the feelings surrounding the quote. Spy-like doesn’t do it justice, is almost misleading. It was like I’d been part of some experiment, if you will, regarding some matrix that is the Earth experience. But I wasn’t succeeding, hence the thought — and maybe I was disappointed at my brain’s inability to dream a functioning reality based on Earth. Maybe that’s all the previous parts of my dream were. I had “woken” to find myself in that room, staring out the window, in a place with flowers that changed colors, and felt familiar with it. At peace with it, but also troubled by the task I’d just failed to do. The writer in me said yes to the line about “this isn’t Earth” — like a punchline or epiphany a reader and/or viewer is going to have to contend with.

Chuckwalla/Mojave Desert

April 7th, 2021: A few nights ago, I dreamt a dream within a dream. Hacienda house: Grandpa frail at first, shuffling down hallway. P and I trying to find a private place to have sex, but we are found by both Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma, happy and in love, back together with a healing Grandpa. Whose speech became better. She heals me from a sudden fever. I awake to Dad’s house, balcony before his room. Mom, Rene, me, jewelry and makeup. I told mom about my dream and what it meant about Grandma’s death, that she willed it, wanted it. Reunion with Grandpa and how happy she was. Mom began to cry and I stopped, apologized. I didn’t want her mascara to smear…

April 27th, 2021: I don’t remember if I wrote about the Jeep dream and how Grandpa had left the doors unlocked and two men came for me, kidnapped me, raped me. Another recent dream had me in a knife fight with a woman who had broken into “my house,” which is a place I didn’t recognize, but when I called the police they didn’t believe me once again, they thought I was pulling a prank. The woman then wanted me to cut her and it became agonizing to be forced to hurt her… On a different night, I dreamt Grandpa was at my bedside talking to me, rambling off about how efforts to truth tell can only hurt all sides (he was speaking about ethnic identities and history)…something to that effect, I don’t quite remember. When I looked his way, he got spooked and went away (because he was apparently just a ghost). Then, last night, at the Jouflas pull-off, I dreamt that people were too close to the Jeep. That they were trying to look inside at me. And I could hear the rain that had started.

Hetch Hetchy

Part 3: The existentialism of it all

I was better at reading earlier in the year. I welcomed the re-contemplation of craft as taught by Matthew Salesses: “To really engage with craft is to engage with how we know each other,” in that craft is inseparable from identity. It “does not exist outside of society, outside of culture, outside of power.” I think once you’re able to grasp this, then it’s easier to understand how systems, status-quo, and methods for thinking, living, and writing have been cultivated or could be cultivated to enact power, for good or bad or….both. Or, perhaps, for nothing. Power for the sake of power (at the expense of others). Writers, needless to say, must wield craft responsibly.

“[it’s] not what is the real story, but how are stories made, and how does that change the way we understand them — and ourselves.” – Sarah Sheesley

One of the books I read this year was Desert Notebooks by Ben Ehrenreich. I wrote down many quotes and thoughts of course, but a thought that sticks out is: something of the past always survives. And you can interpret it for good or bad, or for whatever nature. We know the past survives because there exists a present. But I’m always trying to do away with thinking of time linearly. “To remember is not to time travel; it is to alter how time feels…Love is how we know we are in the right time.” – Matthew Salesses

“language was the currency in which one measures time…voice became a measurement of time.” – Ocean Vuong


I have an old upright piano that used to belong to my Grandma, then my mom. I’ve come to learn that a piano can only be tuned to itself after a while, much like us and our own relationship with age. The piano tuner was rather appalled at its lack of true pitch, or rather its inability to ever be true again. He suggested I discard it, the body was warped, strings weak — as if it had become a two-dimensional thing, a collapsed memory, an unraveled soul.

“We’re attracted to objects; we’re attracted to usefulness.” – Betye Saar

Certainly, it is an abyss trapped in the context of its age, and as I said, it is no different from us. I’m sure there’s a study somewhere that states change is harder the older we get. Or that we seek change less and less. Or that we become incapable of withstanding the effects of change. Less durable. Less malleable. Less willing to expose ourselves to the random circumstances of living. We shrink into our categories of usefulness, into our objects.

Keep, as in, pull toward: perhaps this is what happens every time I press a key on the piano. A string pulls sound toward itself. I press a finger to pull sound into me. I keep the memory of tones, of grandparents, of parents, of time itself. I keep and I keep and I keep. Perhaps keeping is what ages us, compels us to evade or ignore what we can no longer pull.

Utah Triple Crown. Photo: Matea Wasend

Part 4: The Neverending

“I want nothing but my sadness, what you never were. There is no what-once-was, there is no circling of the found,” I wrote in my journal. I’ve done a lot of grief processing this year, from losing close friendships to coming to terms with familial contexts and upbringing. I wrote my first official hybrid essay in the Spring, one that dances between poetry and prose. I entered it into a contest and it was declined, so it’s back to the musing of words, of their movement, how I can best tell my creation story. How can I engage in the landscape of a sentence in the same way that I do with the land?

“Spaces also moan because they bear the entirety of our living…The shaping of time into language is another way of saying writing.” – Reneé Gladman


June 24th, 2021: If I were to write a letter for the end of (my) days, I think it’d include a lot of my anger and despair, of abandonment and sadness. Yesterday evening’s run felt like a liminal place. I cried here and there, thought about how death would be easy, make sense, that I can’t foresee myself living a long life. It already feels long. I have a growing contentment for letting go. Shrinking. Disappearing. But then, I saw something so beautiful: black body running in joy down the trail, green hills, red stone. Magpies gathered beneath flowers that looked like snapdragons. The grasses were tall, thick. Everything rolled in the wind of dusk, gold-tipped and shameless.

August 24th, 2021: Is loneliness just a human phenom? I can’t imagine trees ever considering themselves as separate from their environment, comprised of an infinite number of other living beings. And they all intimately interact in community. Exchange. Happenstance and affinity. The modern (colonized) human questions themselves into a lonely oblivion. I certainly do all the time.


“We are also within a story of our listening…Isn’t being lost another way of saying, ‘I am here?’…I am a moving architecture…” – Reneé Gladman

The human voice is as much a landscape, as much an unknown. A sound of sounds.

Indian Peaks

Our brains thrive on making sense, on comprehension, on lessening the unknown to lessen the risk. Our instinct is to move beyond survival into a thriving and an eventual comfort. Less risk means less of a need to be fully present over time. The more we engage with extended comfort, a condition our bodies eternally crave, the more the present becomes a foreign place for time to exist.

I spend a lot of time away from the present. The comfort lies in what I’ve tucked into my head, all the keeping, all the dreaming, all the architecture of the brain spinning time backward — we are taught and shown that there is always something to discover from the past. Never are we fully taught to be content with the unknowing of the present. The only way I’ve come to know the world, rather, when I’m not running, is in retrospect. But joy is hard to recognize this way, because I think joy is truly something that only exists in the present. To remember joy is perhaps powerful, but the brain does what it does, and memory might not always invite the rest of the body into it. Joy experienced in the present is undoubtedly a whole-body thing.

Crossing the finish line for Telluride Mountain Run, 40 miler. Photo: Mike Hernandez

But being present can be terrifying. Suddenly you realize the world isn’t what it used to be (for better or worse). Suddenly the piano is untunable. Suddenly you are older. Suddenly you’re thriving, or, suddenly you’re not. Suddenly you are lost, have no foresight for what could take place next. Would it help to think about change as a transition instead? Since many changes can’t be helped. The present is then a coming to terms with the constant transitions that surround us, that take place within us; and when we are present with our transitions, we can interact with the transitions of others in a more meaningful, listening way. This doesn’t always equate to joy, but perhaps it’ll be easier to catch, knowing that no matter what happens next, our voices will continue to measure the boundless truths of time.

“Love the beautiful as well as the truth.” – Nikky Finney

To summarize 2021, I don’t really have the right words. I went through waves of writing, reading, running, traveling, doing nothing, feeling superfluous or overwhelmed with politics, then finding myself distilled into humming moments of a singing world. Besides knowing that I’ll have another essay in Alpinist Magazine next year, and that an essay of mine in an anthology (Campfire Stories Volume 2) will be published sometime in 2023, I really don’t want to think too much about the future. The future isn’t an actual place of survival, the present is. So be here. Take notes. Take care of the you that is now. Understand that the brain wants to predict and protect, let it dream. Then come back. Give back. Unravel the known. Keep your feet in the same place as your soul.

Patrick on the west ridge of Twin Sisters

2 thoughts on “In Brief, 2021: What the Brain Does

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