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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Turning Stories into Snake Medicine



Writing from Wyoming
cabin, Journal #2
WRITERS ARE BRAVE.  It’s what we do best.  We cast aside our fear of the blank page, of the unknown, dip our proverbial pen into the ink, and commit word to paper—one stark letter after another.  We leave the safety of “out there” and enter the unchartered landscape of “in here.”  Fear takes many shapes.  Sometimes it’s a young river guide who, after bravely rowing some of the biggest drops in North America, quakes in her river sandals when reading from her private journal around the evening campfire.  Sometimes it’s a writer, entering the war-torn landscape of an interior life, trying to make sense of it all.  

Pen and ink of cabin, John Gritts
(drawn from photo)
In the summer of 2003, I left to do just that—pick up the strands of an unraveling life and try to recreate the fabric of my life.  I spent a month in seclusion at a cabin on the edge of the Cloud Peak Wilderness area in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming—no phone, no computer, no electricity, no car, no television, no running water.  I had been to these mountains before—on summer pack trips, a few fly-fishing trips, and twice up to the ancient Bighorn Medicine Wheel researching my novel Shifting Stars.  But never before had I gone to the mountains alone, nor gone to an area so remote that I was more apt to encounter a mountain lion or bear than another human being. 

“Are you taking your dog with you?” a friend asked. I shook my head. “But you’ll be alone up there,” she persisted. ‘”Are you at least taking a gun?”  Again, I answered no.  I did not want fear as my traveling companion.  Then the woman who dropped me off at the cabin climbed back in her truck, and casually mentioned, “Watch out for the rattlesnakes—they’re kinda cranky from the drought.”  Suddenly, Fear was there, standing beside me as I waved goodbye. 

Pen and ink, Page Lambert
Now, 9 years later, I am still trying to weave together my next memoir, picking up the strands, flipping through 400 pages of “cabin” journaling, polishing the entries I want to include, wishing I’d taken more photos, and looking askance at the amateurish sketches I drew of the bones I collected, and wondering why bones have always held such fascination. 

I want to repeat this line again from Joy Harjo's new memoir Crazy Brave. "Bones have consciousness," she writes.  "Within marrow is memory."  (see earlier post)

Pen and ink, Page Lambert
Marrow.  The Free Dictionary defines it as "the soft organic material filling the cavities of bones, made up of a fiber-rich meshwork of connective tissue."  Merriam-Webster defines marrow as:

  1. the substance of the spinal cord
  2. the choicest of food
  3. the seat of animal vigor
  4. the inmost, best, or essential part: core 
Joy says bones have consciousness.  And memory.  Marrow is described as connective tissue and the innermost, best, essential core.  Natalie Goldberg, in her classic book Writing Down the Bones, tells us that writing is a way to penetrate our lives.

Let's make no bones about it, penetration can hurt--whether it's the fangs of a rattlesnake, or the sharp tip of a pen spilling our blood all over the page (hardly an original metaphor).  


Pen and ink, cabin, John Gritts
(drawn from photo)
How did I bid adios to Fear that day, standing on the porch of that cabin in the wilderness?  I wrote about it.  I dredged up every personal story about snakes I had, written and unwritten, and in so doing, transformed the fear.  My own personal snake medicine arose out of the stories, and I was able to let go of everybody else's stories.  A few mornings later, I found a snakeskin clinging to the ring of rocks that walled in the small spring where I gathered my daily portion of water.  The snake had come to drink during the night, to bathe and rid itself of an old, weathered shell, to greet the new day with a clear vision and a fresh appetite.