Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bear Country

Driving west across the United States, making my way to San Francisco from Badlands National Park (where I stayed in a cabin the first two nights after leaving St. Joe), I had a choice to make: cross deserts or mountains. Initially, this felt like a no-brainer, given the circumstances of the last fifteen months. But as I considered the landscape and talked it out with the Chicago doc, I decided that I did not need to build-in any expectations about what the drive might bring, and that Yellowstone National Park held some great, mystic, powerful appeal that had something to do with both seeing more of the (Teddy) Roosevelt west and with understanding something about myself. I wanted to see if I still loved nature, and then, if I loved nature the way I loved it before Katie was killed.

My last weekend in Indy, I went with the LaPlantes to the Indianapolis Zoo. That next week, in Chicago, I went by myself to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Both times I sought out the bear exhibits, where I sat a while and watched a polar bear (Indy) and a brown bear (Chicago) poke around their habitats. I didn’t have any flashbacks or intrusive thoughts connected to the night of Katie’s death. Mostly, I just noticed how neither of these bears was the bear that killed Katie. That was disappointing. I wanted to feel some broad-spectrum fear or anger about bears and instead I just felt really sad that the circumstances of Katie’s death were so unique as to preclude even a general phobia. I felt very aware of why I was there, which in turn made me very aware of how different everything was: wrong country, wrong city, even the wrong bears. The experience reminded me of a bad biopic, where all of the colors are sharpened, the dialogue made super-hip, and the sets designed to look purposefully retro, such that you are only more aware of the contemporary moment and how remarkably it differs from the thing the producers are trying to recreate.

If you haven’t checked out last week’s This American Life (#340 The Devil In Me), it’s worth a listen. In the first act, an Iraq War veteran dealing with PTSD undertakes a radical strategy to both treat his illness and to make peace with his war experience: he joins the Muslim Student Association at the university where he is studying after the war. Meeting by meeting, Sam Slaven sits further from the door, starts engaging other students, starts volunteering for the organization, until finally he is able to ride in a car to group events without thinking about which of his peers intends to kill him or should be a potential target. It’s a wild story. Sam gives This American Life permission to talk to his VA therapist, who describes Sam’s actions as a kind of radical program of desensitization. Desensitization is one strategy used as an alternative psychological treatment to anxiety medication, in which a person who has suffered trauma is gradually reintroduced to the situation in which he/she suffered the trauma. The goal is to change a traumatic and debilitating memory, which few of us can live with, into just a really bad one, with which all of us live. The memory never goes away, but rather becomes something with which you learn how to live.

In the last several weeks, the Chicago doc has said two things that make a lot of sense. First, I shouldn’t have any expectations about what nature is going to mean to me in the future. I like believing that things follow a certain order, especially if I stick to one way of doing them, especially this last year, when I have so valued anticipating, then squaring off into manageable chunks, the general order of things. It’s a radical idea, accepting that I can’t anticipate what is going to happen next. Second, and this is the big new insight for me, the Chicago doc has emphasized that life is not a zero-sum undertaking. Good things don’t happen in proportion to bad things, and vice versa. Beth said this nicely last summer when she noted that some people go through life untouched by tragedy, while others are seemingly inundated by its incidence. When I am enjoying myself, on a micro and macro level, I have to catch myself so that I don’t act as though/believe that things are about to turn badly.

These last two and a half weeks in San Francisco, I have felt so happy to be in a new place, surrounded by good friends, about to start the Stegner program. Walking all over the city, eating organic figs, watching motorcycle parades and circle dances, sitting out in parks or going for long drives to new, beautiful places, I have felt so fortunate. And yet, underlying that sense of fortune is a powerful expectation that I really don’t deserve any of this after Katie. It doesn’t come out that directly most of the time, but in talking things out with the Chicago doc, I notice just how central an expectation of failure and catastrophe is to my daily activities. After fifteen months of focusing on survival, soaking up all of the love that I can, munching anxiety and sleeping pills, working part-time, what would it be like to legitimately start engaging with, and enjoying, life again?

The bear is a powerful and ubiquitous (yes, ubiquitous) symbol in the American West and Northwest. Driving the 80-odd mile winding, beautiful Beartooth Pass south through Montana into Yellowstone National Park, I stopped at the summit and walked around a small lake by the side of the road. Cait had flown out to Billings, MT, to make the last leg of the drive with me, and as we stretched our legs I was so taken with the lake. It was beautiful, surrounded by fresh sage and big trees, the water was cold and clear and reflected back a bright, sunny sky. About halfway around the lake, I looked around, panicked a little, and asked Cait, “So, what do you think the odds are that a bear is going to come charging out of these woods and attack us?”

On October 12, 1875, William Waddell was killed by a brown bear in Santa Cruz County, California while tending to his lumber mill. In the intervening 133 years, no one has died in the state of California from a bear attack, though 103 people died on the whole North American continent in that time. Conventional wisdom says that the grizzly population was so decimated during western expansion across the United States, by game hunters and to protect local communities, that the meanest and most aggressive bears have been naturally selected out of the modern bear population. This point was well brought home for me when, upon arriving to Cait’s family cabin in South Lake Tahoe, one of her cousins remarked, “This mother bear and her cub were just here a couple of hours ago. They came right up on the porch but I banged some pans at it and they lumbered off. The cub was so cute—I just wanted to squeeze it!”

Nature is a matter of baby-steps for me: stick to open spaces, make short trips, check the surroundings constantly, go with someone you trust and who makes you feel safe. Yet, I want to keep going further. Mostly, I’m aware of bears indirectly, where they are brought back to civilization and adapted to local culture. Walking through grasslands in Yellowstone, about a mile in, we came across a sign that warned, “Bear Crossing! Do Not Remove This Sign Or You Will Endanger Other Parks Visitors!” From the Chevron station in West Yellowstone, ID, I saw that the IMAX theater was showing “Bears!” Across the street from a store full of Western goods that may as well have been called “Everything Bears!” Next to a coffee shop with a curvy bear in place of the usual Starbucks mermaid, where a newspaper featured this official governor’s photo of Sarah Palin. Last week, in Palo Alto, I was approached on the street by a PETA solicitor who showed me a giant photo of a polar bear and exclaimed, “Now don’t you just want to save this adorable guy!”

I don’t want to save the bears and I don’t want to rid them from this Earth. Especially not the bears in North America, who seem to have struck a kind of lock-your-doors-and-we’ll-scavenge-someplace-else détente with the ever-encroaching human population. I wish that Katie and I had been better educated about the behaviors of those bears who live in Romania. We weren’t. Yet, on the day that she was killed, Katie was as happy and vibrant as I had ever known her to be. I loved watching her hike and being with her in such a state of general enthusiasm and contentment. Nature made Katie feel good. Getting to a place where I want to be in nature again feels like honoring Katie. Yellowstone was gorgeous. Buffalo herds in the street, elk in the distance, mountain goats, grackles, eagles, and beavers just across the way. Mountain vistas, canyons, and neon hot springs. Wrap-around-porch lodges where Teddy Roosevelt stayed when he came out west, staffed by people from Malaysia and Cold Spring Harbor. Wildflowers, trees. I liked all of that about Lake Tahoe, Half Moon Bay, even Golden Gate Park.

I recently uploaded to the KMF website photos of KMF’s first scholarship recipient, Nicole Kellier, working in Jamaica. Nicole spent this summer supervising a group of South Florida public health graduate students, as they provided free public health services to those in need who could not afford to pay for health care. In six weeks, KMF will host its first annual Fun Run & Walk, a kind of get-to-know-us outdoor event in Katie’s hometown. The weekend of the Fun Run & Walk will also be the first annual KMF board meeting. We’ll take a look at what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and what we plan to do in the future. I’m so proud of how KMF is coming together. It means a lot to me that so many friends, family members, and even strangers have gotten involved in honoring Katie’s memory and are doing such good work. As our organization grows, we’ll continue to find ways to come together so that other people understand what she meant to us and the world. That’s pretty great. I guess one of the strange realizations of the last year is that life can be abundant in so many different ways, without much rhyme or reason, although sometimes, like with KMF, it intuitively makes a lot of sense and, even better, makes me happy.


Sam Slaven said...

I like your story. It's very interesting.

Stephanie said...

Speaking of bad colors in a biopic, can you something about the color scheme? It's really hard to read.

I think there is at least a zillion poems or a really strong essay in here - great images.

I have faith that this move was great for you!


Linda S. Socha said...


What a beautifully done Summary of a long period of creative survival.I love the dawning light that is becoming so clear in your writing.
I wish you joy uncontained and happiness beyond what you can imagine today. I believe you may be exactly where you are meant to be right now. How truly incredibly you express it....enriching the path of any you cross.
Happy Living in California

Stephanie said...

Thanks :)

KATE EVANS said...

So glad you're here & very much looking forward to meeting you in person. I continue to be illuminated and challenged by why you write about in terms of grief, memory and healing. See you soon.

Kayla said...

John, you need to update your "about me". It says "Next Fall" when now it's "This fall"

I just saw that. :)