I have spent the last hour googling pictures of brown bears. I’m trying to desensitize myself. It’s not working.
Tuesday morning, I popped the garage door open to three grizzlies standing in my driveway. A sow and two grown cubs, one of them standing right in front of that big stupid wide door I had just opened onto the place where the dogs and I had some measure of safety. That expression–the hair stood up on the back of my neck–is not an expression. It’s a thing that happens. A very real thing. Afterwards, I felt as if I’d been struck by lightening. The feeling didn’t go away until later that night. And I thought, way to go body, that’s exactly how you should feel. An encounter like this should make you feel as if something mopped the floor of the forest with you. I don’t ever want to be complacent.
I have a very healthy fear of bears. I’m going to keep that.
I also have a deeply disturbing phobia of brown bears in particular that I would love to shed but don’t know, if I ever will. They’ve smashed through my nightmares since I was a kid. The dream bears have magical powers and abilities. They walk upright and know how to work doorknobs. They drive cars–when they’re not flying. They talk on phones. They stand outside the strange weird dream-office where I sometimes file papers and make me work overtime while one by one I watch them eviscerate my dream co-workers as they try to leave the building. Don’t leave, people! The bear will eat you! And then they all die because nobody ever listens to me.
I want to state now that the purpose of this post is not demonize bears. Live and let live. This is Alaska and there are big things with big teeth all over the place. Deal with it. I abhor trophy hunting and people who would just kill a bear because it’s a bear. People who do that aren’t worth the pile of shit a bear takes in the woods, real or proverbial. Bears are an important part of our ecosystem and are absolutely necessary to remind us we are vulnerable, even in our own yards. We have to see ourselves this way, or we’re not going to survive.
Real bears are scary. Symbolic, anthropomorphical, SAT-proctoring dream bears paralyze me with terror. I might be a ninny.
I tried for an hour to find photos of bears that were neutral. I failed. There is no image of a bear for me that does not show a massive intelligent predator.
Those bears in my yard? They weren’t cute. They weren’t fuzzy wuzzy, adorable or just out for a stroll while their porridge cooled. They weren’t even beautiful. They were dirty and wet and had bad bad looks on their faces. They were out to fuck shit up.
So what happened? I discovered my own magical powers and somehow teleported to the button that closes the garage door–seriously I don’t remember getting to it, just hitting it. The bear veered away at the sound, thank god because our garage door takes something like 36 minutes to roll down and close properly against the floor. I gotta have my husband fix that.
Honestly, I’m a little afraid to go to sleep tonight for fear of what will be lurking in the shadows. I’m also frightened every time I have to take the dogs out to pee. I can’t see in the dark, but I sure hear every leaf wiggle and grass rustle.
They say though, you can smell a bear long before you see it. (I know a few guys like that, too.) But I’m not so sure. That sounds like another Lie #49 my parents would tell me, if I got scared on a camping trip.
I used to go steelhead fishing at Deep Creek a lot with my dad and brother. I remember one trip in particular. There was no fish, but who cared? We were on a beautiful river. Sound of rushing water in our ears, the brightness of gold leaves in our eyes. We stood for hours in a long pool, casting and casting and watching the far bank. It’s one of my favorite memories. When we got ready to leave, finally turned around to gather our gear off the sand/gravel bar behind us, that’s when we saw the bear tracks. Right behind us.
Right. Behind. Us.
A bear had come out of the woods, walked right up to us, checked us out then walked away. We never smelled a thing.
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shockproof shit-detector.
Since May this year, I have spent some portion of every day writing something. A cracked poem, some loopy dialogue, a journal entry that says over and over and over one word scribbly pencil: Breathe.
(That’s as close as you can get to yoga without actually having to do yoga. Also, licking the wheels of a lawn mower is also the equivalent of downing a shot of wheat grass.)
It’s all writing. And it makes a difference. The act of writing something down on paper has a profound effect on how my brain engages with language for the rest of the day. I don’t care how bad the writing is, you have to write that shit in order to ever have any hope of getting one kernel of beauty in a manuscript later down the road.
Last week I was working on one of my new plays, rewriting pages into the wee hours. I had a deadline looming. I stayed up til 2am writing pages and pages of new dialogue, witty and emotionally deep with tons of story-propelling momentum and cool hurky-derky words. I thought. I woke up the next morning and read over what I’d so painstakingly scribbled the night before:
Garbage, my friends. Not even worthy of the deleted scenes reel. Utter trash.
I was grateful I hadn’t hit the send button the night before. No one needs to see that.
Hey, bad writing happens. No, that’s not right. Bad writing needs to happen. Now it’s a week later, and suddenly one line of all that nonsense I wrote is rising into the sky and can be seen for miles for what it really was trying to be, even by me, the myopic playwright. One line out of pages and pages of writing. Totally worth it!
And since I’m pulling inspirational quotes about what you need to do to be a writer, here’s my favorite from Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild:
Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.
I want to start an argument
with a tiger. I want to provoke him.
I want to growl back at him,
bare my teeth when he bares his
so we both flash the long sharp knives
of our conviction. I want to cross
the line. I want to call him out
from behind his leafy cover,
square my shoulders, match his crouch
and when he lunges, I want to lunge
so we crash against each other. I want
to tear his bizarre orange hide, bite into
his velvet throat. I want to suffer
his heavy blow to my chest,
I want him to open
my skin. I want him to stand
his ground so I can rise up
on my two legs against him, so we
can lock arms in a fierce embrace. I want
to push him back, I want him to shove
me back until we are both crazed
with rage, equally. I want the dust to rise
like an emptied arena around us. I want
to stay like this for days, deadlocked
for weeks, then years, constant until we shake
from exhaustion, caked in our bloods
and salivas, holding tight
to the others’ neck, breathing deep
the angry musk of a foe. I want
to hang on, to endure beyond logic,
until we could almost give it up,
go home—No! Impossible to forget,
no recourse but to live
straining hard against each other
while our opposing hearts drum:
one beats yes, one beats no,
the muscles’ rally to fight. I want
an oath to rise from my breast,
I want him to answer me back.
I want to fight a tiger to the death.
This is part 17 of the CBS Chain Story.
My part is continued from howanxious.
Evening descended. Light spread like a grey shroud over the land. No sound of birds. No buzz and rattle of insects. The grey grass bent to the ground in its genuflection to decay. The dying sun glinted off the glossed black boots of the man who decided it was time to step out into the open.
He stood for a long time watching. Shadows moved in the trees. If he turned his head to look, there was nothing there. Far off he could hear a rhythmic pounding. Dull and steady like an insistent heart. He would go to it.
They sky’s grey eye glared down on him.
“Watch me if you want, you’ll be blind soon enough,” he said under his breath. No sense in provoking the sky, especially since once the sun went down, this world would come alive with ears and he would be at a disadvantage. The squirrels were here. They could find their way in the dark. He could blow their heads off, but he had to see them to do it. Out the corner of his eye he caught the furtive motion of a curved back, a long tail, a pointed talon. But when he looked he saw nothing.
He started walking, every sense sharpened to a knife’s edge.
The cold weighed on him. He came to the crest of hill and in what light was left, he looked down onto an open vale. A man was there, walking away to the horizon. He watched the man’s broad back, his long hair hanging like black weeds. He knew that man. He hated that man.
“Aragorn, you draggle headed weasel. Go to the Goddess, for all I care,” he hissed between his grey teeth.
The pounding was louder now. A steady banging, and something else. A woman’s voice? Yelling? Desparate?
Inside her coffin, McAdams watched Aragorn leave. She beat on the coffin, unwillingly to give up and resign herself to her fate. She held on to her anger to keep the panic from taking over. Even after she couldn’t see him anymore, she kept pounding. The sound of her fists against the glass was comforting. She would keep it up as long as she could. She would beat back death for as long as she could. Her shoulders ached. Her fists were blunt objects of pain.
“Never imagined this is how I’d go,” she said aloud to herself. “Buried alive. Who’s buried alive in a glass coffin? I’m not bloody Snow White. I’ll be damned, if I’m going to wait here for a prince to save me.”
She beat at the glass. At least the squirrels can’t get to me, she comforted herself with that knowledge at least.
Eventually, her arms gave out, even if her anger hadn’t. She slumped against the wall of her coffin. How had she ended up here? Where was Gosling? What was that lump against her hip?
“It’s killing me,” she said as she ran her hand along her hip and felt the bulge in her pocket. She still had her gun. Whoever had brought her here hadn’t thought to check her pockets. Why would anyone disarm her when they thought she was dead?
“Aragorn, I’m going to send you to the Goddess, but first, I’m going to shave your head.”
She held the gun out, closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.
The world shattered around her. A great explosion of glass and shard and glint and flash in the last light of that pathetic sun. The cold rushed over her. The air was heavy and smelled of what? Squirrel?
She brushed the shards away and sat up. He went that way, she thought. “That’s where I’m going, then.”
A man’s voice answered her from behind. “You won’t catch him tonight.”
She wheeled and leveled her gun at a man dressed in black. “Mister, I will blow a hole in you so big the moon could rise out of your chest.”
He smiled at her.
“I remember you,” she said.
“I remember you, too,” he answered. “You’re a hard one to find.”
“I was dead.”
“Glad you’re over that. You have the ring still?”
He walked past her, even while she held the gun in the air. His shoulder brushed against hers.
“Where are you going?”
“Follow me,” he said.
He didn’t answer. Just kept walking toward the trees. He was hard to see now in the dusk. This place reeks of squirrel, she thought. She holstered her gun and hurried after him.
“Hey, wait up,” she said. “Where are we going?”
My dog and I used to race each other on the road in front of the house. One of us always cheated.
It was me. I cheated. Every time.
It’s because one of us always won.
That was not me. Not once.
We’d walk to the end of the driveway and start our run from there. Except she is a dog and constantly distracted by some smell. She would wander off into the ditch to check on who’d passed through the culvert and it was then, when she wasn’t looking, I’d take off like a fastball thrown by a girl-arm–in other words–for all I was worth. Our neighbor’s mailbox was the finish line. She’d catch on and tear after me. I’d make it about 30 yards before she caught me, passed me, loping along with her huge wolf grin and squinty eyes, ear flaps flying in the wind. She beat me every time.
Those were our glory days. To be honest, my glory days were never that glorious. I’ve never been a fast runner and it’s never been a problem for The Jo Dog to keep up. Plenty of time for her to stop and sniff. She used to run circles around me. There. I admitted it.
We’ve both slowed down since then, and a couple of years ago I retired The Jo from running with me, altogether. It was a forced retirement, I can assure you. Now when I tie on my shoes and head for the door, she gives me the big eyes and flying-nun ears. Every cell in her body poised to spring to the door when I tell her “come on.” And when I don’t say the words… oh god, I can’t even bear to look at her.
I love running with my dog. My dog lives to run with me. Seriously, it’s the reason she exists on the planet. That, and to consume yummie chummies. Ask her. I hate that she’s too old (13) to go anymore. But today was a beautiful day. So I caved. I told her the magic words: “come on.”
Neither poets nor scientists have ever recorded the full measure of such joy as that which exists in the heart of dog that gets to go.
We went to the nearby Junior High and I galloped my little donkey gait around the track, she stayed in the center of the grass wandering back and forth, keeping her eye on me, cutting across the middle to meet up with me. It was kinda like how we used to be. But now I run circles around her.
Afterwards, my knee hurt. My knee always hurts. When I bend it. When I don’t bend it. When I rub it. When I don’t rub it. When I look it and call it stupid. It hurts. Feels great when I run. Hurts when I stop. Weird.
I’ve tried to think what I did to it, some huge catastrophic event that has damaged the works, bike accident, bad fall taking a ski jump, (ha), ice pick through the kneecap. I don’t really remember any of these things happening. I watched my dog do her best stiff-legged run of pure happiness today and realized that the only thing wrong with my knee is the catastrophe of circling the sun 48 times.
We’re getting old. The way things work, she’ll probably go down before me. But not gently. We both have aches and cranky joints. We both just want to run for as long as we can.
We didn’t race each other today. Those days are long gone. But the fattened-up September sun did shine on us, made our shadows long and slender and for at least a couple of miles today we were a little bit glorious.
On the spectrum of things I hate, ranging from downright despicable to death is better than dealing with this, it goes like this:
vacuum the house
eat a lychee nut
go to church
write an artist’s statement
shake hands with George Bush and/or Dick Cheney
touch a spider
Honestly, you’d have to threaten me with a spider to get me to touch a spider. As for Bush and Cheney, they surely don’t like me, either. Alas.
Then there’s the artist’s statement. Evidently, I can write a hundred page play, no problemo! But ask me to write my “artist’s statement” in five hundred words or less and I got nothing. I’ve been working on applications for writers’ residencies all day. I know I am not the first or the last writer who hates these things. I’ve spent hours on this–hours I could have spent on, oh I don’t know, my actual writing.
But whereas spiders are just pure evil, artist’s statements are more of the necessary kind. So I will endeavor to persevere on this application for a writer’s residency instead of working on a play or a poem. In the meantime I offer my ars poetica, from a few years ago, my first attempt at my explanation of myself as an artist. I read it from time to time, just to remind myself.
For instance nothing in this world
not me making the poem or you
You know what poetry is to me,
God made a rabbit
set it in the grass,
Devil made a popgun
shot him in the ass
and goddamn if you don’t laugh.
It’s a poem, after all,
you’re supposed to.
Someone said of you once:
you are an apple unpicked
on the highest branch where harvesters
couldn’t reach you
up there where
the winds of heaven mix forever
with a sweet emotion
a place you and I converge
thee mine, I thine
and I ask you take my hand, take this, my body,
and years ago and years from now
when any of us true in love but truly writes,
it won’t matter if it’s Sappho or Jesus,
Shelley or Shakespeare or the man in a white apron
packing salt around a fresh leg of pork
for a six month cure in the cooler.
The words came from you,
they belong to you.
Tomorrow the Leopards run out in the open for others to see. Tomorrow, director and actors and designers will gather around my kitchen table with the newly printed scripts in their hands and read words I wrote out loud for the first time. Tomorrow, my play comes alive.
But while the anticipation is killing me, there’s also this bittersweet sense of saying goodbye forever to a world that only I knew of, to people that only I had met, to the story that only I knew.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled as hell to hear my play read tomorrow. I wrote it with the intention of wanting to share it.
Playwrights live for this day.
My cast is amazing. My director brilliant. The designer, she’s out to blow our minds with her visual interpretation and mythic space. This first table read is the necessary and exciting step in collaboration as the play moves toward its workshop production in October. The play is ready, so ready to open its borders to other inhabitants.
Still, we never forget, we knew each other first and best. Yes, I’m talking about the play as if it were a “self” apart from myself, at the same time claiming it as a part of myself.
Tonight, I think about those initial inklings that made me write the play in the first place. I think about the hours I spent just staring at it, seriously just staring, staring, god all I’m doing is just staring at it because I don’t know what the hell it wants to be. I think about all the scenes I’ve deleted–in the case of this play, I think I’ve deleted far more pages than I’ve kept. (The old write 50 pages at night and cut it down to 4 the next morning scenario.) I think of my main character standing in a pool of light in my mind’s stage asking:
“How can I go on?”
All these months writing I’ve been trying to answer that question for her and for myself. And now the day is almost here when we hear that answer.
Tomorrow, I introduce my play, Come to me, Leopards. My Leopards, Jolianne, Sydney, Annia, Evelyn and Sharon will run through the woods together, fleet and strong, calling out to each other with new voices. My job tomorrow is to be the playwright and listen, to keep up with them and figure out exactly where they’re going before they get there.
I have a poem I’ve been working on for 13 years. I pull it out every other year or so, tinker it some and get it wrong some more.
For 13 years I’ve been getting it wrong. It’s a terrible poem, but I think of it more than I think of the poems I consider successful. Why?
Because it drives me nuts I can’t get it finished? Maybe.
The Birth of the Sun
It begins like this: a boy
opens a Ziploc bag to set free a bright fish
the quick in the water’s dark profundity
I think it’s more likely that I enjoy the puzzle. I keep worrying the central metaphor, thinking this time I’ll understand.
he stars the pond with flakes of food
the blazing fish whirling in tight wheels
burns beneath the calm, turning and turning fish
small yellow sprocket winding
bright gear driving, golden hub
a singular genius loopdeloop of lucky quark
Nope. Not this time. I always get lost in the spinning. Maybe the damn fish just needs to hold still.
I still don’t know what I’m trying to say and tonight I really don’t care. What I am grateful for is the freedom to get it wrong again and again and nobody died and no world economies fell and I don’t have to give up my lucky pencil because I wrote a bad poem. 13 years becomes 14 years. I am faithful in my failure.
Poem for a Small Meat Shop
for Mit, Rudy and Son of Rudy
Monday morning always a zoo,
freight rolling in and the restaurants calling in
out of sirloins, out of tenderloins, out of pork chops
for godsakes and now it’s up to you
to stand hours cutting
the day into 8oz portions to replenish
the larder behind a city’s appetite for the weekend.
You work for the wage and live by the yield
and take five at the next coffee break
when you wipe your hands on your apron,
lean your hip against the cutting table
to cross your arms and listen
to the other meatcutter’s joke about the guy…
but the damn phone never quits ringing
and across town some executive chef
is clear out of bulk sausage
and the whole fucking world
is going to come to a bad end
if it’s not delivered before lunch.
Pick up your knife.
You belong to a class of people
named for a verb, to a trade of men
stained with blood. The red
on these steaks is vital, brilliant,
against white mylar, the only color
in the whole damn place.
400 each center cut tops.
You made them.
“Mother, we haven’t had anything to eat today,” said the three miners from Mexico, “or yesterday, or the day before, and we are dead broke.”
I said it would be remarkable to find a miner any other way. I said I had enough money to get them plenty to eat, but to be sure and steer clear of the charity organizations .
I said, “I can tell you where you can go and get filled up. Go down to the saloon and get a free lunch, and they will give you a schooner of beer to wash it down. I will have a meeting on the street tonight, and as this is the tourist season the collection will be good and I will give it to you.
We had a collection of eighteen dollars that night, and I gave them five dollars apiece and kept three dollars to get something to eat.
Then we saw a gang coming down the street and they were hammering each other. I asked a policeman what the trouble was. He said it was a row about Jesus.
I said, “Who’s in it?”
He said, “The Salvation Army and the Volunteers are fighting about Jesus.”
I said, “that is a hell of a way to fight for Jesus. Why don’t you arrest them?”
He said it would not do because there were fighting for Jesus.
They had beaten each other and the women had pulled each other’s hair out. They were fighting to see which side Jesus belonged to. While they were hammering each other the collection that had been taken up rolled on the street. I jumped in and rescued the coin.
When I had some coin I didn’t have to fight for or talk for, but got it by bending my back a little, I said to the policeman: “Don’t you want a drink on Jesus?”
He said, “By God, I do!”
So we went to a restaurant and got supper and some beer, and if any fellow wanted to get an extra jag on we were ready to pay for it because we had Jesus’s money.
–Mary “Mother Jones” Harris
Speech at the annual convention
of United Mine Workers of America, 1909
Happy Labor Day weekend, everyone.
Thank you to all the unions, organizers, workers, agitators, liberals and lawmakers who finally pulled their heads out of the owners’ asses to give us a day to celebrate people who work.
And thank you, too, to everyone who has encouraged me and commented and viewed my blog in my inaugural week. I’m enjoying the conversation.