On Wildness, Cracked Worlds, Monsters, and the Odd Nature of the Short Story

 

Cougar2

(note: this essay originally appeared at Powells Books Blog.)

Once upon a time, I worked for the Park Service, minding a little ranger station on Marmot Lake — well above the treeline, about 30 miles into the backcountry from any direction. The station was not much of a station at all. Just a tent on a platform and a steel cache full of tools and gear, and even a sealed bottle of stove gas and a stash of MREs for any ranger who might find herself lost and in need of meager shelter and stomach-turning food.

(It should be noted that this is not a story about the Park Service, or the outdoors, or about wildlife encounters, though it will seem so at first. This is a story about writing stories. You are going to have to pay attention.)

I lived in that tent with the man that I would later marry, though we didn’t think about such things then. Or, at least I pretended that I was the sort of person who didn’t think about such things. Instead, we carried out the tasks necessary to preserve and maintain one of the last remaining pockets of wildness left in this once-wild world: we fixed trails, moved downed trees, attacked certain — but not all — invasive species, cleaned up after the incessant onslaught of Boy Scout troops. This was our job: shoring, dismantling, cutting, hauling, digging, moving, and then tidying up. We had been trained by a ranger named Vic Stanculescu — a man whose whiskers stood out from his face like Douglas Firs, who rolled his own cigarettes with one hand while whittling a stick with the other. A guy who could get it in his head to just disappear into the wilderness while he was mid-sentence in a conversation — and would do so, vanishing just like that, for days on end, returning only when he was good and ready and just wanted to finish his thought. I haven’t seen Vic in years, but I think of him often. He was a good teacher. “Here’s my theory on trail maintenance,” he said to us over and over again. “You take the worst stretch of trail, and you turn it into the best.” It was good advice, as it turns out.

(Do you see? Are you noticing? Pay attention.)

We lived, that summer, at the roof of the world. Snow and spongey turf. The shadow of mountain peaks. Sedge so green it made your eyes ache to look at it. Ice-cold lakes. The constant call of marmot to marmot and bird to bird. Grunting black bears, endlessly hunting berries. The quiet prowl of mountain lions — always worried about but rarely seen. The barnyard smell of our local elk herd, wafting across the valley in great clouds. Two thundering rivers had their source at our little alpine meadow, each one starting as a rocky gurgle pouring out from opposite ends of the lake. Later, the rivers became swift veins that cut through mossy soil, shaded by enormous trees. And still later, they became deep gorges, gouged cruelly into the rock. And then cascades. And then broad, treacherous rapids. And then they churned, all force and foam and volume and velocity, into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, each at their own, screaming mouths. Those rivers did not scream where we were, up on the mountain. They whispered. Each morning, I filtered our water from a rocky bowl in the stream. Each morning, the river told me secrets.

(Pay attention.)

One day, I was hiking down the well-trodden track from the lookout to the tent site, with tools strapped to my back and a water bottle strapped to my hip, when I nearly ran into a mountain lion, right there on the trail. He was astonishing, and astonished. We were not expecting to see one another, our encounter occurring as it did on a blind curve. But once in view, it was difficult to look away. Coming face to face with mountain lion feels like a crack in the world — the Kracken shattering the skin of the ocean; a dragon peeling off the top of the sky, as though it was the pith of an orange. My breath caught. So did the cat’s. I could hear it. Also audible: that low, calculating rumble in his throat. That sound a mountain lion makes as it stands on the cusp of action: attack or retreat?

(Listen. Pay attention.)

It is, at its heart, a question of cost. Each movement, each slice of tooth and claw, each leap and bound and snatch — these are expensive for an animal that lives on the razor’s edge of feast and starvation. Cougars, like house cats, have highly specific digestive requirements, and highly exacting needs to fuel the delicately tuned, muscular machinery of their bodies. A mountain lion lives with literally nothing to spare — each calorie it eats is a calorie used. Almost immediately. Nothing is wasted. Every action must be paid for. This is how they live.

(This is a story about stories. Are you listening?)

He was huge, that cat, so much bigger than I had imagined a mountain lion to be. Broad paws pressed into the soft ground. The loping curve of his shoulder blades rippled and swayed. His muscles announced themselves. He took a step back. Showed his teeth.

(Pay attention.) 

I took a step back. Pulled my Pulaski from my back and held it above my head like a sword. I kept my eyes tilted away. I had to see without appearing to see, assess without aggressively observing. I needed to see with my other eyes; to hear with my other ears. I had to feel his movements with my skin. And in my feet.

(It’s how we build stories. Do you see?)

The cat made a sound. I don’t have a word for it. It wasn’t a roar or a bark or a growl or a snort or a snarl. It was something bigger. He didn’t make the sound with his mouth — or, at least it wasn’t only his mouth. He made it with his feet, his tail, each muscle, each bone. It rattled the ground and smacked the air. I could feel it vibrating in my molars. I swung the Pulaski over my head, and brought it down to the earth with a crash. I opened my mouth and I made the sound that the big cat made. That exact same sound. My feet, my muscles, my bones, my throat, my tongue, my teeth. They had never spoken that way before, and they never will again. Not a growl. Not a roar. Not a snarl or a bark. Something else. I didn’t look directly at the mountain lion. I knew better. I saw him with my skin instead. I felt him start. Startle. Rear. And then he bounded away.

(You see it, don’t you?)

People ask me sometimes about my writing process. They ask me about where my stories come from, and I tell them about listening to rivers. They ask me about revision, and I tell them Vic Stanculescu’s rule about trail maintenance. They ask me about writer’s block, and I tell them about the careful planning required to remove downed trees from across the trail — the dangers of pinned trunks and sprung branches, the singularly powerful feeling of bringing the spinning teeth of a chainsaw to the broken torso of a silver fir, and the clarifying smell of pine sap.

And people ask me about the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel, and I don’t always know what to say. Sometimes I borrow the language of architecture, and sometimes I talk about engineering, and sometimes I talk about poetry and the ways in which silence speaks. But now I see that’s all wrong. When we write a novel, we live in the novel. We call the leaky tent on the rickety platform home. We wash ourselves in the ice cold water of the nearby lake. We tend to the landscape. We know each animal, each plant, each rock. We listen to the rivers as they whisper. We know their secrets. A short story, on the other hand, is an encounter. We cannot look it in the eye. We have to see with our skin and hear with our bones. A short story is a crack in the world; it is tooth and claw; it is the choice between attack and retreat. Nothing is wasted. Everything is paid for. It makes a sound that we cannot identify or name, and we make that sound in return.

Perhaps it will attack. Perhaps it will devour us. Perhaps it will bound away.

This is why I like reading short stories, and this is why I write them — to be astonished; to be left breathless; to return to the world, shaken and dizzy, and looking over my shoulder, waiting for the monster to return.

(Pay attention.)

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In Which the Authoress Delivers a Commencement Address, and Randomly Decides to Put Mother Hulda in it. And also a sorta subversive read of Scripture. And also a Call to Action.

Dear Ones,

I know I keep promising to return to a practice of regular blogging, and I continue to fall down on the job. My apologies. I’ve been busy. And scattered. But I was asked to give a Commencement Address at St. Catherine University – a Catholic, all-women’s college and my alma mater, and I wanted to share my remarks here. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be graduating from college right now, with our nation in the state it is. And I had a hard time thinking of what to say. I shouldn’t have worried. I spent some time talking to those women, I am deeply convinced that we are all in excellent hands. I came away inspired, hopeful and completely convinced that things are going to be fine. These women are going to make sure of it.

Here’s the speech:

 

Regarding Fairy Tales and Faith:

How We Bear Witness to the World by Bearing Witness to Ourselves

 

Happy graduation, dear Katies. It is an astonishment, isn’t it? To be here, in this moment? I remember feeling astonished. It doesn’t seem so very long ago that it was me sitting out there, at my St. Kate’s graduation, my family nearby, my parents both exquisitely proud and deeply, deeply fretful.  I have discovered since then that this is the role of parents, from the moment our children are born until they lay us down for our final rest – we are so, so, so proud, and gosh we worry so, so, so much.

And to be fair, my parents had some things to worry about. I went to St. Kates intending to study medicine, until my path was swayed by the siren call of the English Department, with its promises of close reading and sensuous sentences and gorgeously specific vocabularies and scintillating literary analysis. Well. That will turn any girl’s head. And then, my parents had contented themselves with the promise of eventual graduate school in literature or composition or rhetoric, and perhaps a dissertation and even a “doctor” in front of my name, until I informed them that I would, instead, be travelling to Florida. In the sweaty summertime. In a rusty, ancient Oldsmobile in the company of a young man with long hair . . . and obscure intentions. And I was going to work in a bar.

“We have a free place to stay!” I told them brightly. “So practical!”

And so they stayed behind, and they worried.

And then I got it in my head to travel to the Pacific Northwest and got a job in the Park Service, where I was trained in Search and Rescue and Wildand Firefighting and Wilderness First Aid.

“Is there even any health insurance with this job?” my parents asked.

“Health in what now?” I replied.

There wasn’t.

(It was the nineties. It was a crazy time.)

And so my parents worried even more.

I continued to move restlessly through the modes of my life, trying on different futures the way most of us try on shoes – in a place of wild hope and enthusiasm, and sometimes valuing aesthetics over practicality. So it goes. Youth, though inefficient, is a wonderful thing. Eventually though, my path led me through graduate school in education and into teaching in high school classrooms and then in middle school classrooms, and then in GED classrooms, and then in college classrooms, eventually bringing me to the work that I do now: writing outlandish novels for children, writing strange short stories for grownups, connecting with kids through the power of stories and the power of the imagination. It is good work, my job, and it feels good to do good work. It feels good to do work that matters, as we journey forth. But it’s not the journey that I want to talk to you about today.

Instead, I want to talk about bearing witness. And what it means to bear witness in the context of a life of faith. And what it means to bear witness in the context of a St. Kates education. And what it means to bear witness in the context of this odd moment of history that we now find ourselves in. This odd moment in history in which all of you now are poised to inherit  . . . well, everything. You’re inheriting the fruits of your education. You’re inheriting the fullness of your adulthoods. You’re inheriting the course of your own life and the fruition of your precious selves. And because this is happening right now, in this context, the context of the world as it is now . . . well. The notion of how we bear witness becomes even more important.

But first. Bear with me. Because I have to start with a story. (Sorry about this. It’s a professional hazard.)

(And obviously, because I am this person, and this writer, I will be bringing up fairy tales. Every room in my brain has a fairy tale in it. The maps of my life and the talismans in my pockets and even the clever ravens and kindly wolves and speaking stones who sometimes give me life advice? Fairy tales. Everything I have and know comes from fairy tales. It’s good to establish this now.)

Once upon a time, there were two sisters – one good and one wicked. Their mother loved the wicked sister and hated the good, and consequently decided to send the good sister into the deep dark wood in the middle of winter to search for strawberries. She made the girl a dress constructed entirely out of paper, which gave her no protection from the cruelties of the North Wind.

“Fill this basket with berries,” the mother said. “And don’t come back until you’ve done it.”

Because the little girl was good, and because she tried to do right, she did as she was told. She journeyed into the deep dark wood, through the deep, deep snow. And as she walked, she shivered. And as she shivered, she wept. And as she wept she knew in the deepest part of her heart that there were no strawberries to be found in the snowy wood, and that she could never come back. And that she had nowhere to go.

And because of her tears and sorrow and shivering, the good sister lost her footing in the snow, and found herself falling and falling to the bottom of a deep, deep well. Down and down and down she fell, and she gave herself up for lost.

But when she landed, she found something very curious. She expected to land in darkness and damp and deep water, but instead found herself in a clean, well-kept room. A swept floor and comfortable chairs and a merry fire in the fireplace. Hooks for coats and hats, and bins for shoes. And a little old woman sitting by the fire. The little old woman looked at the good sister. She appeared tired, and sickly.

“Have you anything to eat?” the old woman said.

The girl had a single crust of bread – her only food for the whole day. This she gave to the old woman, since she looked so very hungry.

“Have you anything to drink?” the old woman said.

And the girl had a single swallow of water in her water skin – her only water for the whole day. And this she gave to the old woman, since she looked parched.

The old woman stood, suddenly hale and vigorous. “You are a good girl,” she said, “and you are willing to offer entirety of yourself. If you work for me for nine days and nine nights, I will reward you with a basket of strawberries, and another gift that I shall not say.”

The girl agreed, and she spent the next nine days and nine nights in the company of the old woman – caring for her, cooking for her, sweeping her floor and making her bed and offering acts of kindness and service and faith. Offering her whole mind and heart and work and Self. At the end of their contract, the girl felt herself lifted as though by a mighty wind, and before she knew what was happening, she stood in front of her house. She was clothed in a dress made of the warmest wool and boots of the thickest fur, and held a basket overflowing with strawberries. And what’s more, every time she shook her hair, a shower of gold coins fell to the ground. The girl was amazed. “Just think of the good I can do,” the good sister said.

I’ll stop the story there, but you can imagine what comes next. The wicked sister and mother, filled with jealousy (because that what we learn in fairy tales – that wickedness and jealousy are inextricably linked. As Pete Seeger used to say, “there’s a moral there somewhere”.) journey out into the deep dark woods and find the well and plunge in. But when the old woman asks for something to eat and something to drink, they say, “No. We only brought enough for ourselves.” And when the old woman asks for service, they refuse and demand gifts instead. (Entitlement, ladies and gentlemen, along with rapaciousness, are humanity’s ugliest emotions.) And  . . . they get some gifts. Just . . . not very nice ones. So it goes.

This story is actually a very ancient one. The old woman is called Mother Hulda in some versions and Mother Holle and Frau Pechtka and Old Mother Frost in others, depending on who’s telling it, and it is believed that she not only is one of many Germanic goddesses that simply transmutated into fairy tales, but that she might even be older than that, from the pre-german tribes that wandered the mountains, thousands of years ago. But while this story is pagan in origin, it seems to my eye to be stitched through with this very Christian notion of bearing witness – not in terms of courts of law or statements of fact, but in terms of how we bring the fullness of ourselves to bear in our work, in our interactions, in our willingness to do right by others. We bear witness by refusing to look away. We bear witness by showing up to our lives, and bringing our full selves to the task.

Now this Christian notion of bearing witness has always delighted me, actually, because it has, at its center, a subversion of what we expect from a faith that has operated in the historically patriarchal way that it has for the last two millennia. Our faith has always sought to find sly and unexpected ways to uplift the downtrodden and to shine light on the forgotten among us – we see this in scripture and we see it in the lives of the Saints, even though sometimes the most faithful among us tend to . . . well sometimes they forget about the subversive bits. That’s okay. We’re here to remind them. We live out a faith that insists on the fundamental humanity of sinners and lepers and deviants; we live out faith that insists that it is the poor and the meek and powerless who will one day inherit the Kingdom. It’s hard to get more subversive than that.

So too, with this notion of bearing witness. Because the first witnesses to the faith – the very first ones – were women. They were women. It’s important to remember this in a women’s university. It was a very young woman who gave that first, clear and emphatic YES to God With US – an important form of witness. She brought her whole Self to the task, literally witnessing with her body and her life. And it was a grieving woman who not only wished for miracles but insisted that there must be miracles when she scolded Jesus as she mourned her brother Lazarus. “How dare you not get here in time,” she railed at the Lord. And then, quietly, under her breath, “You big jerk,” she added. And this was a form of witness too. The acceptance of miracles. The utter embrace of the Divine. And then later, in the process of engaging in the deeply female task of cleaning and caring for and coddling and swaddling the body of Jesus one last time before laying him to rest, it was women who saw the stone, and it was women who saw the discarded shroud on the dirty ground, and it was women who spoke to the angel, and it was women who went back to declare the story. To speak loud and true.

We have a great history, dear women, of bearing witness. And it serves us to remember it.

When I was a student at St. Kates, my professors demanded that I bear witness. That I vigorously confront each task, each problem, each paper, each test, bringing the fullness of my intellect, my curiosity, my knowledge, my logic and extrapolation, my supposition, my analysis to bear. And to bear what, exactly? Insight. Understanding. Compassion. Connection. Truth.

This was true in my General Chemistry class when Sister Mary Thompson – and oh! I was terrified of her! – took our textbook and threw it on the ground with a colossal crash, saying, “It doesn’t matter if you memorize every chapter, every sentence, every letter in this entire book. The text is dead without the force of minds to make it new. If you can’t bring me your intellectual vigor then stay home.”

That woman wasn’t kidding around.

It was true in my Shakespeare class when Sister Margery Smith – who we just lost this year, and oh! What a terrible loss – handed me back a paper that I had thrown together at one in the morning the night before, and had scrawled at the top, “Please. Don’t waste my time.”

I still have that paper, by the way. And her note. And I gotta say. She wasn’t wrong.

It wasn’t enough to do what was required. It wasn’t enough to stick to the text. It wasn’t enough to perfunctorily perform in any sort of prescriptive way. My professors wanted me to bring it. To bring the fullness of myself to myself, and then go farther. They wanted me to bear witness to my education, to my intellect, and to my life.

It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t always comfortable. Still, I’m grateful to them. Because of that training, that rigor, that insistence on curiosity and analysis and hunger, I ended up on a path not fueled by ambition, but rather fueled on a need to make things better. To connect and feel and engage with the world from a place of radical empathy. As a writer – specifically as a writer for children – I take this notion of bearing witness very seriously. Through my work, I ask my readers to engage with their imaginations and to ask big question – about love and faith and justice and hope, about tenacity and friendship, despotism and division, and the arc of the universe bending towards something greater than ourselves. Through my work, I bear witness to pain and loss and grief. I bear witness to tyranny, propaganda and deception. I bear witness to honest mistakes and unintended consequences. This is what it means to be a writer. But this is also what it means to be a person in the world.

All of you have the gift of a Saint Kates education, and all of you are personally called to bring that education to bear in the larger world – to bring your light to dark places and hold it high. The gift of ourselves is only relevant when it is given – a light under a bushel is a useless thing. In the story of Mother Holle, the girl’s goodness and kindness and empathy is its own currency. She brings the gift of herself to bear. And that gift matters. And yours matters too.

Now. I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but we’re living in . . . interesting times. Where strife and division are cottage industries and where the task of witness and kindness and empathy and connection are hampered by so much noise. It makes our job harder. Once upon a time, trolls only lived in stories, but then the people who once told stories somehow invented the internet, and now trolls roam and snarl and howl hateful things at good people. Troll armies and their nihilistic love of discord and chaos are real now – they subvert news narratives, and sneer at laws, and disrupt discourse, and spit on science, and even elect presidents.  There is no more important time, then, than right now, in this moment, to be willing to bear witness. To bring the vigor of your analysis and the gift of your knowledge and the perspicacity of your insight and connection and compassion and empathy to wherever your precious St. Kates education takes you – to the halls of hospitals or the halls of business; to classrooms or boardrooms or artist studios; to houses of worship to libraries to laboratories to makerspaces and to field work out in the wide, wide world. Your knowledge matters. Your interpretation matters. Your work matters. Your goodness matters. Your witness – and your willingness to bear witness to yourselves and to your work and to humanity and to the world – matters. It matters. And it is vitally important.

I’m standing here before you as a St. Kates graduate, who was, once upon a time, sitting where you are now. And I was filled with plans and hope and excitement and juice. But I was also scared. And I didn’t trust myself. And I worried.

I shouldn’t have. What Sister Mary and Sister Margery were trying to tell me all those years ago was this: “You are more than you think you are. Be more.”

And this: “Your mind is broader and more complex than you have been willing to acknowledge. Bear witness to the fullness of yourself, and bring that fullness to your work.”

And this: “Be brilliant. That’s an order.”

And that is where I want to leave you, dear graduates. Your goodness and kindness are the only currency that counts, and I want you to spend it freely.  I want you to remember that your faith can move mountains. I want you to remember that your knowledge can move industries. I want you to remember that your insight can move minds. And I want you to remember that your education can open doors.

So go forth. Be more than you think you are. Bear witness to the fullness of yourself. Be willing to bring it, to give everything you have to your work and your relationships and yourselves and to the world. Leave nothing behind. Offer everything. Be brave, be kind, be open-minded, be good. And be brilliant. That’s an order. Congratulations, graduates. Just think of the good you can do.