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A Wilder Agenda

My brother told me I should write stories without an agenda.

“You should write something everyone will enjoy – something like Holes or Secondhand Lions,” he said.

Holes, by Louis Sachar, is about a prison camp for children. It’s a novel where, back in time, one of only two black characters in the book was killed by a mob of white people because he and a white woman fell in love. In the movie Secondhand Lions, two old, white men with long guns sit on their porch, threatening to shoot passersby. You know, things everyone enjoys.

Brian can be cured by the landscape of calloused hands and wide, open spaces because his life resides at the top of a cowboy culture created for him to aspire to, to be comforted by, but I want more, I need more. Pioneer mythology never intended to hold me, a woman – wayward, in fact, born to the too-small western town social landscape.

Our single mother raised us in western Colorado and, for a time, the biggest town we lived in was an 800-soul town with seven churches and three bars, a 60-mile round trip from Durango. Brian and I and our mother navigated her boyfriends and their Second Amendment rights, their jokes and commands. We lived in a rented trailer and sometimes got free lunch tickets at school.

We belonged to the sandstone and snow, created by waves of change. The sands of ancient water bodies and high deserts settled and compacted by other minerals and colored, in part, by iron oxide. People traveled there to the sculpted sandstone just to see it, to be changed by it, made more serene. We told stories about the place to find our place and grew possessive and protective, wary of too many tourists, too many hiking feet, too many souls seeking a quiet salvation, adding their noise along with their footprints.

Miles of power lines cut through the high desert, home of mesas, ancient buildings fallen to ruin, a landscape dotted with dinosaur tracks.

We were home when we passed through the land of mesas and sandstone buttes, black against the night blue sky. We were home when we saw the star-capped La Plata Mountains.

Mom dated the man who owned the gun and tackle shop for a while then she went out with Vern, longest-term boyfriend, fatherlike to us. She disallowed boyfriends from sleeping in the trailer in her bed, partly because her bed was in the living room, and partly because she said, “Boyfriends are dangerous,” and she wanted us to believe in the marriage bed only, according to our religion and a bible written for the Sons of God and the daughters of man, ever worried about her reputation.

We were raised by “Boys will be boys” and “Whistling girls and crowing hens always come to some bad ends.”

I had a boyfriend, Paul. We spent our years together, fifteen to eighteen, holding hands in secret between us on the benches of basketball games where we chanted the wreckage of The Visitors when we were Home. We ate the lamb and venison our families killed with their bare hands and ammunition. We parked on middle-of-nowhere-was-the-middle-of-our-world roads and in the alley behind the barn where the deer hung dead not far from the burn barrel. Paul didn’t know enough of gentleness, but if he had, it would’ve made him weaker. I sought the deer-eyed look in his eye when I pleased him.

Mom said, “He’s just a teenager, honey. He’ll grow out of it, and anyway, how bad could it be?”
When I broke up with him, I went out with Mustache Mike, bigger than Paul, but everybody feared Paul, so then I went out with Pretty Mike because if I couldn’t have protection, I’d have a good time. Back at school, the next Monday, I heard the words, “Trailer trash” in my direction.

Mom and I sat on the steps watching the sky and the mountains. I told her I’d reinvent religion like Joseph Smith of the Latter Day Saints who wrote a whole new scripture because he wanted to make a good woman out of every one he wished to have sex with. My religion would’ve allowed women to have multiple husbands, too, but Mom said she didn’t want even one.

She said, “I’m a feminist, but…” to my philosophical suggestions.

Brian and Mom yelled at the television, “Why are these women so loud?” Senators. Civil rights leaders. Feminists. Women voicing agendas.

Our mother died when we were still in our 20s. When we got to the casket in that dark, ghost-filled room at 10,000 feet in elevation, I sensed the pioneer ghosts sitting on their haunches around me, too exhausted to look up from under their bonnets, dead babies in their arms. I heard the swishing of ghost pebbles in hopeful pans – Leadville, the home of gold hunters. The mountains made of stone and money.

When I was three or four, Mom and I stood in front of a window in Leadville. A pioneer mannequin woman held a basket of dry goods in one arm and the hand of her pioneer mannequin daughter as they stood by a wagon with a wilderness background behind them, the Rocky Mountains rising behind them, a long trail of wagon streaming down from them.

“Someday, I’ll be the mama and you’ll be the daughter,” I told her.

She told me this story many times, and when I was older, we wondered if it was a better story as truth or metaphor.

We buried her in the café con leche-colored hills near the confluence of the Eagle and Colorado Rivers.

Brian fell in love with Kelley when he saw her digging postholes for a fence high in the Rocky Mountains while her long red hair flew unbound in the alpine wind.

They married two months after Mom died, and a month after the wedding, I had Thanksgiving with Kelley’s family, multiple generations of Baptist ranchers.

Our mother had been a bilingual teacher having learned Spanish in college. Kelley’s mother spoke vigorously in support of the English-only campaign of the day, “Nobody speaks Spanish in Colorado anyway,” she said.

Mom had told me she changed her political party to Democrat the month before she died, having voted as one issue-wise all her life anyway, she said. Brian and Kelley both said they’d left college because, “They want to make you think like a liberal.”

When children got out of line, I heard, “Do you want a spanking?” and then children didn’t get out of line. Mom had sent me an article about not spanking. She told me the only reason people spanked was because they couldn’t think of anything better. She told me to do better.

One of the mothers said, “I want that bumper sticker ‘AIDS makes vegetables out of fruits.’”
They all laughed while I sat horrified and mostly speechless, unable to be eloquent in the face of the ferocious hatred.

Kelley’s many siblings and cousins talked about being pro-life.

The Second Amendment in cross stitch hung on the wall.

Kelley told me to read my mother’s Bible in response to something I’ve since forgotten, and for once, I held my tongue. I do remember that. My tongue still hurts from it. What could Kelley have known of my mother’s Bible. Some sure, but only some.
Brian and I didn’t talk much after that.

We used to trust each other with our sins, talking in the dark while Jesus sat on the trailer roof, ears covered, pretending to watch the stars. We whispered because God always listened, not being an ear-covering-kind-of-god.

But Kelley’s God heard all thoughts. She told me, “There’s no such thing as personal privacy – that’s a human idea, a feminist idea. Our parents opened our mail. I’ll open my kids’ mail, too. There should never be secrets from family.”

And I caused problems for them, my brother said, so I did as the Baptist preacher at Kelley and Brian’s wedding asked. He said to the congregation, “Will you promise to support these two in marriage?” and we did. All of us. Even me.

So, I got out of the way. I had my own family – a husband and daughter – and became a city girl and an author of journals and a writer of vignettes. I wrote about revolutions, inner and outer, and about sex and being a woman and about grief and never being quite good enough and about being something more.

The ocean of my new home created a new landscape in me, and I tried to become worthy of it: expansive, nurturing the rich inner life beneath.

The pen wrote truth into the steam of truck windows. I looked through it from outside in and inside out and remembered. I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts. I’d grown up as one child of two in a deep valley. The pen, like my brother had done, gave me company and solitude. I was grateful.

I wrote to change my relationship to my brother. He’s read the words and said, “I remember that, too” and “We didn’t mean to leave you out.”

But that’s our conflict. I do want out. I prefer the chaos of wildness to the authority of fences. I prefer live fawns to hides and solitude to belonging. I’m a renter with the full knowledge that I’m just passing through, while he tells me people don’t take care of what they don’t own, despite proof to the contrary in our childhood. We live on opposite sides of irony.

The valley of our youth has filled with concrete and golf courses and when I visited, I didn’t know where I was, the landmarks gone, an eerie erasure. With my pen, I wrote the houses and hotels back into being bobcats and wild streams and magpies. I wrote the elk enough space and the mountain lions and marmots returned.

And things are as they should be again as I write them. It is all becoming winding alpine rivers and aspen leaves quaking and oceans void of warships. It is all too much for words. Without and beyond anyone’s agenda.



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