Personal essays, creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, memoir–a host of appellations exists to describe the sort of writing that is real, yet not as dry and precise, as straight journalism; honest, yet perhaps embellished or enhanced by the writer’s all-too-fallible and human memory (or desired memory); certainly evocative and laden with the imagery of language. This is a medium in which I’ve scribbled and dabbled and attacked and despaired of and aspired to and sought after like some sort of linguistic mirage ever since I discovered its existence. My main question throughout this process has been and continues to be: Why does this type of writing often sound so much better in the mind than on the page?
When I first moved to Utah, I worked with “troubled” youth. By far my favorite correction to that term remains one uttered by a friend of mine when I interviewed him for an article I wrote about this subset of society: he called them instead “glorious” and “powerful,” as a reminder that they are as much a part of our human society as anyone. I started out working in a residential setting, bringing together horses and kids to gently guide a part of the healing dance I witnessed time and again. Then I worked in wilderness therapy, which shaped me as much as the teenagers with whom I worked.
I still strongly believe in the power of the wilderness to rip away the worst bullshit of contemporary society from us, in its indefinable yet irrefutable ability to soothe the (irony alert) savage beast inside that rears up after prolonged exposure to the sub/urban bubble of modified truth, glorified longing for “things,” and the bizarre falseness of a life lived according to someone else’s hamster wheel.
But I digress. Some years back, I began the perhaps mammoth attempt to parse my experiences into a written form that would be intriguing, moving, digestible, and who really knows–just halfway interesting to someone, I mostly hoped. Fast forward to March 2014, and I have easily a dozen half-finished pieces about those years I spent working in wilderness therapy, both fiction and not. This year, which is quite a few after my very last week in the field, is the year I plan to dig myself back into the muck and morass and utterly gorgeous time that was, and complete some pieces, and get them published.
So here’s an excerpt from “Tribe of Shining Malcontents,” a creatively nonfiction work-in-progress. Malcontent: not satisfied or content with currently prevailing conditions or circumstances. Shining: radiant; gleaming; bright. Let me know your thoughts.
Tribe of Shining Malcontents
“This is the true joy in life—being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances.”
—George Bernard Shaw
Some years back, I attended my 15th college reunion. The women of my class seemed barely changed, still youthful, fulfilled with now-realized dreams, fabulous in their late 30s with the glow of self-confidence and joy and sense of purpose. They discussed jobs, children, marriages. They lived in big cities, in rural towns, in Europe.
I felt a connection to them—they were my classmates, after all, my age, we had all shared the common experience of submitting our porous minds to the same institution of higher learning. We shared the horrors of ’80s hair, flowered pastel dresses with big shoulders, and the instant camaraderie of the same commencement date. I fit in with them. I dressed similarly then and now. I discussed current events, my life, their lives, the graceful college where we gathered. I knew all the words to the Public Enemy-era tunes we grooved to on our last night at the local dive bar we had frequented back in the day—much to the amused dismay of the local hard-core biker regulars.
Yet I realized, even before we all opened our mouths to speak and share our truths, that these women were not of my tribe, and therefore I talked too much while trying to illuminate my life. I did not really match them. My words did not flow, and the information most important to me, what I most wanted to describe and impress upon them as being vital to my being and to life itself, I could not explain. Language failed me; more accurately, I revealed my lack of ability to form verbally the letters and sounds and shapes of the words that would display my truths in ways that touched and amazed the listeners. In short, I belonged to a different tribe, and I failed with a distinct thoroughness to paint with any clarity our diverse, singular, magnificent selves to my old classmates.
How to describe the sound of dozens of bare palms smacking drum skins, beating out a ragged yet beautiful rhythm punctuated by laughter and light, threading up into the crisp desert night air, spiraling into a sky filled with an unutterable amount of stars densely clustered over tall chilly mountains and red sandstone hills and lone coyotes howling their notes with us? How to paint the picture of an odd, grubby group, seated around firelight in the dark long past sunset, mostly teenagers who would at first sullenly and later willingly be called what they were: children, scattered like seeds away from their sheltering and nurturing tree, seeking a compass without even knowing what they sought? Children gathered with their unlikely shepherds, this rag-tag crew, some barely out of late childhood themselves, sometimes dreaded of hair, bare of foot, and always sparkling of eye and hugely giving of love and fierce encouragement and, mostly, belief in their young and uncertain charges.
How to say, “There exists a group of people, mostly young, but some in much later age, who willingly, even eagerly, forsake the American community we generally acknowledge to be our due—Starbucks, email, Ipods and commuter trains and stop lights and grocery stores open 24/7, stocked to the brim with endless bounty, hot showers and ready electricity and flush toilets—and leave their own homes and families to camp in the remote, rugged wild lands with these scared, scary, desolate, utterly powerful teens. This group of willing travelers will sleep outside, on the ground, for eight days in a row, sometimes more, and eat food cooked out of tin cans over an open fire, and indeed will make fire from neither matches nor magical fluid nor lighter, but instead from a method so ancient and esoteric that likely less than one percent of the world’s population can perform this same skill—creating flame by almost literally rubbing two sticks together. These people will lead these children, they will teach them, they will listen to them, they will risk being hit or kicked or spat upon by these raging and terrified teens, they will watch them 24 hours a day to make sure they stay safe and do not hurt themselves or fall off cliffs or run away. They will gently yet firmly hold these children close—children who are screaming obscenities or crying with the pale hollow sound of loss—if they attempt to harm themselves or others.”
What would you say if I told you these people do this job with love, and exhaustion, and little reward in the sense that most of our compatriots can understand, indeed even perhaps most peoples of the world? What would you say if I said that the simple joy of seeing a tiny smile finally crack the most blank face after weeks of struggle, of one day of a normal-sized girl not calling herself ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ if she has an extra helping at lunch, of a tough boy sobbing openly in front of his peers as he reads a letter from his mother and truly understands for the first time how she felt when he looked at her with flat cold eyes and told her he wished she was dead—that these unquantifiable rewards are enough, with few other perks, to keep this rag-tag band of saviors and heroes and defenders of the wilderness going? Would your eyes glaze over, would the polite veil of confusion and lack of understanding smooth your features into a bland expression? I would then have no choice but to coil my loose floundering words somewhere deep inside myself, to finish off my stammering explanation, the one that does not truly spread open the heart of these people and the place that gives them succor, and just smile politely in return and think helplessly, beneath my own society expression, I am not of your tribe.
How, indeed, to say all this in a way that communicates with lucid simplicity and raw, aching honesty? My words still tumble out, unrefined and jagged, lacking a master’s smooth precision. I know that I can only try.
To each their own, but I have chosen my tribe. It is the clan of the feral longing wind, the tumbled and strewn red rocks and shiny black lava boulders, the little twisting snake colored tan and dusty red and mottled brown; the dirty, the unclean, the troubled yet joyous. Am I yet clearly describing who my tribe is and how we love and live and feel?
Due in no small part to the frantic, distracting, mind-blowing city living that enraptures us in every corner of this globe—thank you, worldwide web—children across our vast country are shrieking with pain and fear and questions and confusions. Their howls are often misunderstood or ignored or self-serving or cruel. One quiet, astonishing way to reach and rediscover these children is to plop them, generally indignant and horrified, into the wilderness with members of my tribe, telling them, Be loved. Be cherished. Be mature. Be aware. Be responsible. Be your own true self. These kids form their own tribe, their own connections that brand them as different, their own crazy hairstyles and distinctive clothing and chosen tunes (sung in their own voices with the beat of footfalls for accompaniment) that proclaim them, I belong to these people. It is a sight both tenuous and monumental to behold: tenuous because it is, like all societies, temporary and temporal and unreal; monumental because it encompasses the shimmering entirety of life in every permutation and existent unbelievability one can conceive.
How, indeed, could I possibly explain and color and discuss with any modicum of intelligence or beauty or love this state, this life, these bands of unkempt wilderness wanderers, leaping and crawling and stumbling in tune with some elemental rhythm we all once knew millennia past and still do recognize somewhere in our cells, hidden deep within our over-analyzed, over-technologized, over-stimulated selves and psyches and core essences? This not something that can be explained, even by those who work in the field, who possess doctorates, years of clinical expertise, pages of factual explanatory notes memorized and available as soon as one can get back to the office and to the machines that link us with absolute knowledge about ourselves and others.
Such phenomena as happen out in the crumbling sands of the desert or the flat top of a mountain with thin air can hardly be catalogued unless lived and experienced on a visceral, unrelenting level. I cannot explain what it feels like to sleep on a thin pad over pebbles and twigs and earthy lumps, sheltered only by a noisy plastic tarp from the shock and awe of lightning zagging to earth in almost slow motion, the individual bright cracks and twists across the hugely dark sky revealed line by line, the lightning appearing to generate from the clouds above although the opposite is in fact true: lighting jumps up from the ground to its cloud, reaching as though for a lover of unparalleled prowess in a dance of ancient longing, the steps choreographed with such precision as to appear utterly variant each time. The hiss and click of the tarp snapping in the rough storm wind, the lash of the poorly-tied guy line waltzing with abandon in the wild air, shuddering and flailing to an extent that you cannot sleep for fear that your homemade covering is about to fly off into the night to join the lightning in its crackling angles up into the chartless black yonder.
And yet you must get up, not for yourself, but to stumble through the campsite in the middle of nowhere to reassure yourself that your huddled young charges have secured their own shelters properly, that they are dry and safe, that they are not rigid with blind terror in the face of a furious natural boogie they likely never before had to navigate without the cover of a roof and four unwavering walls, that they are, indeed, still there, and have not chosen to run away under the distraction of this intense exhibit of nature’s vastness over the puniness of one’s human self that brings about one of those epiphanic moments that can be termed a paradigm shift of Brobdingnagian proportions.
And, of course, if they are either utterly stupid or brilliant enough to take their leave on such an evening, you are the one expected to go find them, dodging lightning bolts and cliff edges and the spiny thorns of prickly pears as you race through the desert to find the *@&#$()$#!$* little precious angels who have not an ounce of empathy for the parents who will not look lightly upon such behavior.
No, I am not sure at all how to tell such truths in ways that are understandable to the vast majority of people living lives in what seems to be a perpendicular universe to that of my tribe’s. But because this was a part of my life, something as real as the frozen winter mornings in the field and as true as the stab of monsoonal rain on my bare skin, and because it mattered, I want to try.