And it was a shapeless voyage. Underplanned; underfunded. Like that time in my twenties when my boyfriend and I camped up and down the California coast. Freezing our asses off, we were whipped into submission by the frigid ocean wind, and—guided by no plan— moved east, north, then back toward the coast in a zig zag of unrepentant spontaneity. Landing once in a campground a few miles off I-5 that was so dusty it’s dirt never heard of rain and still yet was such a small fare to pay Life in order to feel free and unencumbered.
And the original Yellowstone vacation had to be scrapped because of a June blizzard, but somehow the girls, mom and I are there and it’s morning—June 15 2008 (Fathers Day)—when we’re stopped at the side of the road watching the grizzly bear eat the baby elk. The snow had melted into the pasture and the bears grey fur blew in imperceptible breeze, and as the tiny carcass (certainly still warm) became the backdrop for our first trip after daddy moved, Livy cried softly—“I bet the mommy elk is looking for her baby right now!”—in the tender, knowing way that would become her trademark.
Because on that day, my daughters and I bore the mark of unresolved grief. Where their dad cheated then moved to the opposite coast to live with his girlfriend and her young son, leaving myself, our two daughters, our pets, our life, threatening with lawyers if I contested our decree then bringing his girlfriend back to town a few months later—to hotel rooms they’d share with our girls—asking them, “why can’t you stop being selfish and just be happy for me?” They were 9 and 6. But he had his new family and the urgent need to justify his actions.
And I’d withstood the tears of my self and my girls from rejection that cuts the soul and had come face to face with truths we weren’t ready to handle, and watching that field, my little girls and I felt rooted to those truths. Stuck by the still-knife of temporal events which repeatedly wound us until we remain inside them, as if walking beside the ghost shadow of ourselves.
So on that day—on that slight hill, next to at least a hundred other spectators—I briefly joined Livy in wondering about that mama elk. About the world that Mama and I live in. Wondering how she can see and carry this. Wondering about the inherent indifference of it all and how we can find the strength to survive this world.
[One of the great mysteries of existence rests with the moment of the “big bang.” If that event had obeyed the currently-accepted laws of our physical universe, the Big Bang would have created matter and anti-matter in equal amounts, a circumstance which should’ve been so condensed that matter and anti-matter would have annihilated one another, leaving only energy. But that’s not what happened.
And given enough time, it’s hard not to make everything the domain of the bittersweet. Impossible, really. I was walking through the grocery store writing this, thinking about how the struggle for my girls didn’t stop after that Yellowstone day or for years after yet ours is still such a beautiful story, now making the seemingly-disparate aspects of it connected as two conjoined truths.
For that there are tangible experiences of predation—bears eating babies, daddies creating emotional wounds—is the easy-reader version of a story. But the stars we look upon glow as matter conceived via a known improbability, and in so doing, pass on to us legends about who we are and the poignancy resting inside every tangible experience, as one aspect of truth forever looking for its other].
The 1988 fires of Yellowstone twenty years before had made scars that settled into the landscape. In that 1988 summer, thirty-six percent of the park had burned, and trees fell like sticks on each other, resting now in 2008 as in permanent homage to the dignity of their past.
That fire year, new aspen groves—waning in the park before the fires—sprouted up miles from their burnt foremothers. The seeds for the shoots had been carried on wind and water and popped up only days after the fires, so to now—on our hasty sojourn through Yellowstone—they could grow proudly beside their ancestors like a lesson. As if Time is a benevolent gift which purposely withholds wisdom for a reason.
Standing near me, my mom—a pragmatist—lifted Julia in her arms to look at the bear. In 2000, the year Livy was born she’d told me that God never gives us more than we can handle. Julia—born in ‘98–had been challenging; hadn’t slept longer than two hours in her life, was colicky, every arriving tooth making her wail and sleepless, and James was constantly gone either physically or mentally, and I feared for what the second child could bring. Mom isn’t religious and neither am I, but in those simple times, “God never gives you more than you can handle” was enough. Yet now I stood with the knowing that it wasn’t enough, and never had been. Such words are inert— placeholders passing for lore–and shaped by hope into a feeling just good enough to persevere.
The park rangers were directing traffic overlooking the meadow, and I held Livy in my arms. I wanted everything for my babies. To feel loved and safe. Free, unencumbered. Wanted them whipped by ocean winds daring it to make them cold. Wanted their only miseries to be courtesy of choice and adventure.
And the 1988 aspen groves that had burned were direct clones of groves mammoths and camels had probably grazed on, And it reminded me of something I once read: that the pull of gravity from the sun is precisely what’s needed to keep our planet from flinging itself into the abyss. That for billions of years beyond placeholders, the sun has anchored us to the safety of our Earth as we eternally balance, falling always into the sun but forever missing.
And in the bright sunshine of a June day in 2008 that bear’s fur blew in the breeze, floating in air I didn’t even know was moving. Perhaps whispering to me about mysteries of Nature as Julia comforted Livy—“Maybe that bear also has babies it needs to feed”—among RVs and tripods and foreign languages.
And maybe there are moments that stand still on one point, as if Time can pivot and catch. When you’re standing on the earth in the sunshine with your daughters and also falling into the sun and forever missing.
Because in the absence of a deeper knowing, the power of our love must be taken on faith but when we shield one another from the emotional brutality of our darkest truths, we bear witness to pain as an infinite-love seeking the comfort of itself.
And so it was that my soft-hearted seven-year-old child–Livy, her eyes red from love for that elk family—was in my arms comforting her stuffed panda, and her older sister—Julia, then ten, surveying the adventure, calling us back into stronger selves —comforted us both.
And inside a tangible scene, we welcomed ourselves home to the surety of our deepest safety, growing from and into each other—free and unencumbered in our devotion—our love filling in the incompleteness of a burned landscape with groves of trees now in full bloom.