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’d been whipped into submission by the frigid ocean wind, and—guided by whims— moved east, north, then back toward the coast in a zig zag of unrepentant spontaneity. We landed once in a campground a few miles off I-5 that was so dusty it’s dirt had never heard of rain and yet none of it mattered, being such a small fare to pay Life in order to feel free and unencumbered.
For our original Yellowstone itinerary had to be scrapped because of an unexpected June blizzard, but somehow the girls, mom and I get there and it’s morning—June 15 2008 (Fathers Day)—when we’re stopped at the side of the road watching a grizzly bear eat a baby elk. The snow had melted into the pasture and the bears fur blew in an imperceptible breeze, and as the tiny carcass (certainly still warm) became christened as the backdrop for our first trip after daddy moved, 6 year old Livy cried softly—“I bet the mommy elk is looking for her baby right now!”—in the tender, knowing way that was her trademark.
Because on that day, grief had pierced us. The whims of a man—my husband, their daddy—living 2000 miles away with his coworker and her toddler son reflecting back to us the rejection all humans are petrified to feel.
And I’d withstood the tears of my self and my girls from a year of events that cut the soul. Him using lawyers and anger to abuse my future; using callous words asked of children–“why can’t you stop being selfish and just be happy for me?”–to relieve himself of the shame of leaving his daughters. The girls hyperventilating in anxiety that mommy would also disappear; sobbing into my shoulder, “I miss my daddy” during PE classes full of classmates who could smile in the full privilege of being free from excruciating truths.
There are evacuations from disasters; floods, fires; where nature beckons us to face emotional foes via the tactical dances of physical structures; where something can kill you but it’s not personal, it’s merely the cost of doing business on a planet from which we also eat and survive.
And there are evacuations via tactical dances of psychology. Holes unrecognized moving dads into cold selfishness. Evacuations where something is threatening us, and nothing we can say or weep makes any difference, and we’re forced to accept that it is personal and the landscape of our emotional lives is altered via killing not just our way of life but also our desire to survive in this newly barren landscape.
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.
Where the world has stopped being emotionally concerned in the slightest and wields “uncaring” as an emblem announcing they’re proud to be so.
So on that day—on that Fathers Day, on that first trip at the end of a dark year; on that slight hill, next to at least a hundred other spectators—I briefly joined Livy in wondering about that mama elk. And about the world that Mama and I live in. Wondering how we can see this harm and yet still carry it. Wondering about the inherent indifference of it all and how those of us who still care can find the strength to survive this world.
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—trees falling like sticks on each other to rest, afterwards, in permanent homage to the dignity of their past. That 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 out of soil only days after the fires, so to now—in 2008, 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—visiting from California for this voyage—lifted Julia in her arms to look at the bear. A pragmatist, mom had sprinkled the year with her visits, rounding out the too-obvious empty spot at our dining table, offering comforts for the day to day life that had kept bigger holes from forming, sharing platitudes—“God never gives you more than you can handle”—she didn’t know were set to the tune of a year with me curled up in the fetal position convulsing in sorrow. For not everyone feels called to answer the same questions about an uncaring world. Not everyone’s 7 year old with a red, puffy face will ask them, “But what if that baby just couldn’t run fast enough?” Sometimes God DOES give you more than you can handle. Sometimes God gives you more than you can handle and then calls you to make it palatable for the little being resting on your hip watching a bear eating a baby elk.
And this baby on my hip was heavy. Seven years old now, holding her stuffed panda Bibble who spent the last year going everywhere with us. Before this baby on my hip was born, I was afraid I wouldn’t love her as much as I loved her older sister. I couldn’t understand how it was possible to do so considering that her older sister had pulled me into desperate things from which I rose up to grow steadier. But this child on my hip would be born in sight of a mom fully in love, parenting myself by soothing my immature worries, evolving towards a better self I didn’t even know I could be. A better self informing my worries of their impermanent nature; a better self that rises to answer hard questions using the magic of knowing there are sights and sounds yet to behold if we can persevere through the agony.
And in the bright sunshine of that June day in 2008 that bear’s fur blew in the breeze, floating in air I didn’t even know was moving. The heaviness on my hip and in my heart cloaking the lighter qualities of this existence, qualities which fall under the spell of the great mystery of why we’re even here at all. Was it God? The Big Bang? The Big Bang being one of the greatest mysteries of all. If that event had obeyed the currently-accepted laws of our physical universe, it would’ve created matter and anti-matter in equal amounts, so condensed as to annihilate one another, leaving only energy. But that’s not what happened.
And my feet were standing on All of the unknowns. Near burned aspen groves that were direct clones of groves mammoths and camels had grazed on 10,000 years before. Under the worry and the dizzying brutality of a world we can’t deny exists. Unable to utter platitudes about God to placate via falsehood.
And suddenly Julia climbs out of grandma’s arms and crunches gravel to come closer and whisper to Livy, “Maybe that bear is also a mama with babies to feed.”
And I smell my baby in my arms. See the dirt of this planet under her fingernails.
And Livy’s looking down at her sister, and her red eyes give pause. Her small hands clutch her ratty, stuffed panda bear as her agony slowly opens the gift so generously offered by the sister she adores.
And it’s Father’s Day 2008 in Yellowstone, and we stand in a tree-filled meadow of green (under the morning ease of our effortlessly-generous star) within earshot of strangers, and foreign languages and motor homes, and tripods, and park rangers directing traffic, and wade through tangible experiences of predation, holding gifts of love for one another and our concern for our world now poignantly growing together inside the shadows of a burned landscape where groves of trees were now in full bloom.