When I came to South Dakota three years ago, I had been running for a while. I was living and working as a musician, and it was a life I loved, except I was also miserable. See, trying to make a living making art too often starts to feel like selling your soul. It's like the first day of 7th grade every single day. I wrote the following not long after I landed in Bison, when I was still trying to catch my breath, and to a certain extent, myself.
It’s interesting to revisit old work – sometimes it is painful, other times pleasantly surprising, and usually it is much easier to be gentle with the self you were, than the self you are. In her wonderful book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes about learning to feed herself after years of struggle with bulimia. She says, “I know where I was, and I know where I am now, and you just can’t get there from here.” Yes. Exactly. In this piece I predict that, “Someday I will look back on this and realize how good it all was.” Boy, I was wrong. Instead, I look back amazed at how sad I was. I don’t know how to define grace, but I know that I’ve experienced it. And I can say with something like surety, it spans the exact distance of where I was when I wrote this, to where I am now.
I’ve not spoken to anyone in three days. Outside, the yard is bare earth and dead grass and inside the wind blows through the open door and over the dogs sleeping on the floor. I am looking out the big window at the clouds moving fast and suddenly there is a little sunlight and there is the sky, blue between the long fingers of fog. I start singing, my voice rusty and surprised, happy to be surrounded by dirty dishes and dogs in my first dream made real, a little house on the prairie.
Still, I miss the comfort of trees. The sky here is grand, but it is not comforting. As I type this, I can look out past the neighbor's backyard, past his falling down barn and fallow fields, past my chicken coop and pasture, and see the first folds of the high prairie's peaks and valleys. The hills are old -- the oldest in the world -- and they move in ripples till the earth curves.
I am making friends. I spent last Sunday at the Besler’s west of town. It’s a big, old place with a red barn and shop and a slope roofed ranch house. Fern bred her goats early so they have kidded already. We walked out to the barn, the old grass of the pasture hard and sharp beneath my sneakers. Here and there flattened thickets of silvery sage lay broken where their stalks push out from the ground, new buds beginning to jut up from the old roots. The wind was low, but the air was bitter cold; my hands, curled in fists, shoved as deep as my shallow pockets would allow, were red and numb.
In the yard the baby goats chased their mamas and warbled like a flock of strange birds. Beside the barn lay the still, heavy body of a ram. ‘O darn it,’ Fern said when she saw him. One of the babies climbed the ram’s carcass, leaping high and falling down on its wobbly new legs. ‘Brad will have to move that ram with the Bobcat,’ said Fern. ‘We sure can’t lift him. Let’s get inside, you must be freezing.’
The family house was warm, the mudroom full of rubber boots and wool mittens and happy dogs and two retired barn cats. Brad and Tanner came in from the field and we sat around chatting, the men drinking beer from cans with the basketball game playing in the background, everyone so easy, even me, and that’s no small thing. When I left it was after dark and the stars were so bright it hurt my heart to look at them.
Sometimes, when I am driving, I am overwhelmed by the bleak beauty of this place. The way it leans and surprises. I feel like a teenager falling in love for the first time, it is so beautiful and strange here. Out in the early morning, I round a butte and startle a herd of antelope. They take off running like wind through the grass. In their fear they move as one.
Before me, a mirage of mountains trims the horizon.
Last Thursday, for no good reason, I drove 15 miles out of town on the highway, then turned left, and drove another 30 miles on a gravel road. The terrain, especially this time of year, looks like the bottom of the ocean, or the surface of the moon. The earth rises in eerie mounds and outcrops of stone and sometimes it swells and soars like music. When you drive on these back roads you often have to stop for herds of cattle or flocks of sheep. Thursday, I turned around a rocky ridge and there were two giant bald eagles standing in the road working together to tear a large jackrabbit apart. As I approached, one stretched its long wings and pulled itself into the air with slow, heavy beats. The other waddled awkwardly off to the side. Against the gray gravel of the ditch the jackrabbit’s blood was the brightest red I have ever seen. The eagle let me pass before he flew away, leaving the rabbit, its brown eyes open in surprise.
This is something I can’t stop thinking about: on tour last October I drove through the mountains of West Virginia. It was Indian summer and the hillsides were decorated for death and dormancy with garish color. All around me the bodies of birch trees rose slender and white against the blazing gold; the black asphalt road carved into the mountain like a fault line. A thought came into my mind whole and perfect -- I would not be afraid to die if I knew it would be on a day like this. I imagined resting my body in that cool, rich soil and breathing in the dark smell of dirt and the dust of dying leaves. I felt peace and no fear. What to do with this, I kept thinking? What does it mean since I am living still?
Another thought came, not so perfect or complete as the first, but a comfort nonetheless: share it. Sing with it. Give it to the people who come to listen if you can. So I drove into the town where I was scheduled to perform. I watched the clouds cover the sun and mountainside fade to gray. I got onstage and sang to a crowd of drunks and evangelicals. I told the story of the afternoon. I told them I was there to share the story and I hoped it helped. I thought it was the beginning of the rest of my life.
I made pretty good money that night. I talked too long to a red-faced boy who wanted me to come home with him, then another really stoned and lonely kid who worked at the cafe. One of the born-agains came to shake my hand and didn’t stop for a full minute. ‘Yes,’ he kept saying, and ‘Thank you.’ I felt like a missionary, mostly pure and almost holy, and very close to God. I got drank beers with the other band on the bill, shrugged into a my sleeping bag rolled out over a bare mattress on the guest room floor, and woke up with a raggedy, black cat curled beside me. It slipped through the window in the night, I guess. It was as close to perfectly happy as I have ever been. In retrospect I think I was right, it would have been a good day to die.
DH Lawrence wrote, "This is how I 'save my soul,' by accomplishing a pure relationship between me and another person, between me and other people...me and the animals, me and the trees and flowers, me and the earth, me and the skies and sun and stars, me and the moon...This, if we knew it, is our life and our eternity: the subtle perfected relation between me and my whole circumambient universe."
I disagree with the idea of a "perfected" relationship. Or at least I’ve never experienced it so I can’t own it. But perhaps that is because I have not surrendered yet.
So I’ve come to the edge of my known world to see what part of me will yield first. I am no longer a good student or a good daughter; I am no one’s mother or wife. I am nothing to no one in this tiny town on the prairie. I am on the cusp of reinvention but there is no one here who will notice. I am liberated from all but myself.
A Buddhist friend says this is a good place to start. A friend in recovery says this is when you open the door and let God in. But I do not see the door so I cannot open it, and every time I meditate my head is full of anger and fear. Instead I write this. There is beauty in words and memory, yes? I am trying, I am trying, I am trying to bridge the divide between the great loneliness and the big love. I am trying to be still.
Sometimes I say: we are just stories, but if I believed it, I would not be so scared of getting old. I think someday I will look back on this and know how good it all was. Meanwhile, I am thankful for a little sunlight. It is not spring yet, but it will be soon.