Note: Around once a month, I pledge to break blog decorum and essay = attempt to say something; a trial; an artful testing out on foot. The essay more than any other writing form is the amorphous form of the writer’s quest.
For 11 hours, I had zoomed down straight-shot freeways from the Dallas hum where I taught creative writing to arrive at my annual sanctuary – what would later become Tommie Lee Jones turf and the equivalent of upstate New York for urban Texans, West Texas’s Davis Mountains.
Two weeks in December to find silence and sustained time to wander and write. I was 32, my languid spirit already nearly spent after a decade of teaching full-time with intensity, my heart walled off to most people except students and a few friends and my dog Argus. Any semblance of a family of origin at the time was dissolving.
What follows comes from notebook notes and parts of an essay published back then. In retrospect, the voice here sounds young and groping for wisdom, but even then that young guy was trying to live his quest with integrity and intensity. 16 years later the same themes persist. I didn’t know it then, but within another year I would fall head over heels in love, leave my job, and head out on a very different kind of highway. At the time, sitting in a West Texas field, I vaguely sensed a shift afoot. This is what I found.
In a clearing between fjords lay some thirty or forty pieces of cow bones.
Dogs, wolves, and West Texas winds have scattered them among the dried thickets. Their dull hue, lit by cloud-filtered winter sunlight, tells a secret that they may be becoming stone as my dog and I, both of us sniffers, perch next to the bones.
Other than seeing, as a kid, skeleton models of certain Sauraschia and remnants of everything from buffalo to elephant birds at Fort Worth’s Museum of Natural Science and History, I have had no real understanding of what bones were or which bones were which. That bone song about this bone being connected to that bone never stuck. Now I wish I could examine these cow bones and name them for you, but what’s in a name, anyway.
Name or no name, these ivory sticks play a pivotal place in the role of being a writer to me, and that – the song of bones – is what I want to drum.
Whether these bones were separated during or after the cow’s death I cannot tell. I’d like to think that the dogs or wolves found the beef long after the cow died and that they did not bring it to its death. After a long life of grazing, producing milk, and birthing wobbly calves, the cow, I imagine, collapsed from exhaustion, turned on its side slowly, and fell asleep among the thickets, as the chickens and geese from the nearby farm squawk up a storm, and calves and steers dumbly watch it expire.
All of this, of course, is a romantic human projection of how, perhaps, I would want to die, although I could do without the calves and steers peering over me. This is what we writers constantly do and must do, I think: project ourselves outward and beyond what is comfortable and predictable. I suppose most of us wonder how we’d like to die. A friend of mine is determined to vanish in a flash: a snapped cord while bungee jumping or rappelling, a bad turn in a curving mountain road. For him, authentic death comes with crumbled bones. In his imagination, wolves would gnash at the cow as it released its final bellow.
Death often appears cheaply in an instant like a bad joke or trick ending in a hastily edited film. Grief often tags behind and also comes too cheaply. Regardless of age, we often try to skirt the void of Grief as if we could hop over a crater. Grief, though, doesn’t take discreet hints and walk away. It lingers and hides around corners. It simply needs its due attention like Ginsberg’s long cry of “Kaddish” to his dead mother, or Tess Gallagher’s series of poems to her dead husband Raymond Carver, or Brenda Hillman’s poem sequence Death Tractates to her dead mentor. Then, Grief too can go on about its business.
I have heard beginning writers say that they “kill” a feeling once they try to write; I have not experienced this. Other writers have mentioned the disparity between a “real-life” experience and the unreal distance of writing about it. But writing itself is another kind of experience unto itself, one that pumps blood into a remembered and imagined one. Which is more real, the remembered experience or the written one? They both can be lived experiences or not. What writing will do for my experience of death I have no idea. I hope it makes me more awake.
Writing, for some of us, affirms we’re alive. It is as if the writing or typing out of each new word were another breath, another step. If I don’t die grazing, I’d like to die writing.
The first written words likely were written on and with bones and stones.
Written words now are the bones, the crumbling vestiges, of what we are and what we do. The life of the word ‘bone’ in the English language has taken curious routes. Rooted somewhere in Old Irish for ‘a butchering’ or a ‘lopping off’ it also appears in phrases such as ‘I can feel it in my bones’ and “I have a bone to pick with you’ and ‘We’d better bone up for that anatomy exam.’
Our lives are bones and words tossed to the wind as we wonder where they’ll land, what they’ll become. This circuitous digging and mulling and wondering is to write and to confront both life and death everyday. This is how the song of bones goes.
A cow near the farm some half mile or so bellows over the soft wind, and sunlight at this moment shines dull through clouds and casts shadows on the bones.
One of the bones rounds out like a boat rudder. I scoop it childishly onto the end of my walking stick and hold it out to Argus’s nose, only to be reminded of the pig on a stick on Golding’s tale of lost boys and beasts; I replace it. One of the bones blossoms in near-symmetry, the shape of an elephant’s face and trunk with large ears peering out; or maybe it is a slender fish whose wings and mermaid’s tail fan out. A mermaid angel. Our words and lives should end with such graceful form.
Write to the bone, someone recently said. Let the words penetrate the marrow, enter the cracks and pocks, slowly harden and calcify, then crumble and become dust. We should breathe with such intensity and direction. We should live and teach and parent and write with such fervor. Anything less is singing with half force.