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Archive for June, 2013

Being a writer in this place often requires one to be split in half, in quarters, in every direction. And then you have to go home and piece yourself back together and do something that needs all of you—that comes from some mysterious place within your whole, unified self. I don’t mean only that our lives have different facets. I mean something like: as artists, we often comprise a part of ourselves—an important part—to survive. We have to watch it split off, see it go. Hope it comes back.

I reread a blog I wrote a year ago about cultivating lands of endless time and space within oneself. I was working as a part-time barista and had just finished my thesis, and it was rainy and cool and I’d be getting married in a month.

Later that summer, the weather turned suffocatingly hot and for weeks there were forest fires circling Billings like were all about to be offered up as charred, wheezing sacrifices. Spiderwebs blanketed the field where I walk and strands of silk drifted past my face or clung to my skin, sometimes with spiders attached.

A year went by. I finished my book. And I found myself in this job I didn’t care about, working for people who didn’t care, that took more energy than it deserved and left me feeling intensely frustrated and helpless. Those pockets of endless time I’d been guarding dwindled, then imploded—sucking all that sacred space after them.

I quit. I started a new book, sent the finished one to an agent. In June I interviewed for a job at a nonprofit and left for my parents’ ranch in Wyoming with my husband, Ryan.

Our first day in Crowheart, we helped my dad put irrigation pipe together. It was a side-roll system, and we had to stagger ourselves out and push huge metal wheels through the tall alfalfa, watching for snakes and deep pits in the dirt. The joints had to be perfectly aligned and held that way while Dad pounded the clamp with a wrench. He said he normally did all this by himself. It just took a while.

In the evenings, Ryan and I watched garbage circle the spillway and walked through the boneyard in the cedars, looking at the white, jagged shapes with no hide to hold them; they’d been scattered and gnawed by coyotes, and the ribcage of a cow rested by the skull of a horse. We’d looked at dinosaur bones in Thermopolis on the way to Crowheart, and knew about the pelvises of herbivores and all the failed mammals. We’d stood before a massive fossil—the imprint of a reptile—entire and whole—with a tiny, perfect leaf resting in its talons. “He died holding a leaf,” said Ryan. In the hot, windy days at my parents’, Ryan shot prairie dogs in Mom’s field and I wrote. Ryan said the bodies of prairie dogs were gone the next day.

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I finished the first shift at my new job yesterday. I’m working with teenagers who are homeless or living in crisis situations. We cook together and play basketball, and they show us—me and the other outreach workers—their sketchbooks and spider bites, their infant sons. They don’t eat the blackberries in the fridge. They want french toast.

***

James Baldwin called the act of giving—the kind of giving artists do—a total risk of everything, forever. It is the sacrifice of oneself and one’s plans.

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“People live in a darkness,” he says, “which — if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define — you are responsible to those people, to lighten their darkness … And if you survive it, it is not only your glory, your achievement — it is almost our only hope.”

***

The fires burn for weeks. The ocean rises, a sea of unbroken gray and foggy time. The moon wanes, the spiders float by on strands of silk.

We die holding leaves.

The men lay ladders against the condo building and sweep the paint-sprayer back and forth. They mow in circles. They walk the sidewalks and point leaf-blowers at the grass clippings. The next day they are back.

I’m not expecting things to get easier. I’m making circles and arcs.

Full moon tonight.

I’m going to try putting the blackberries out in bowls. No. I’ll make pancakes. No. We’re buying yogurt.

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