Thursday, November 24, 2011


When I took the shamanism books back to the library, I asked the librarian to photocopy the very long bibliography for me. While she did that, I browsed the reshelf cart -- the books that had been checked in but not put back in place. Here was “Wyoming Summer” by Mary O’Hara, the author of “My Friend Flicka,” “Thunderhead,” and “Green Grass of Wyoming.” I have a biography of her, but had not realized there were other books. This one is developed from a journal she kept on a horse ranch that started out to be a sheep ranch. Even as a horse ranch, it only survived because for two months in the summer it became a “boy ranch,” for boys from wealthy families back east. Mary herself was high class in the American way -- she was an Alsop whose father was an Episcopalian minister, she had written scripts in Hollywood for a decade, and she was a gifted composer who composed musicals. This ranch housed in the front room her fine grand piano, brought in a wagon. Her second husband, the one with her at this point, was a big handsome Swedish horseman with a military background. The feel of her writing is almost like Norman Maclean -- a Biblical ghost just under the surface.

I’d have to go back to reread the Flicka books -- I haven’t looked at them for fifty years -- to know how much of “Wyoming Summer” echoes. This is the raw material. I recognize it and it surprises me at the same time. I recognize the hillside spring and the horses and the cats. I do not remember the amount of mysticism, framed as nature. I was most startled by her account of what she called “Shinar,” a state of ecstatic dissociation in which she tapped otherwise unreachable creative forces. In fact, throughout it’s clear that one of her great strengths is her sensitivity to shifts of consciousness which she illuminates for the reader with sensory details. Prismatically she goes from concentration at the piano to a vigorous walk with the dogs to irritation over some small matter to glorying in landscape.

Here’s her clearest statement about Shinar:

“It has let me in! Yes, it is Shinar, so quickly gained today. Sometimes I enter as easily as one slides into a dream -- and I move through a mountain. The walls are held apart, not because I was making any effort of concentration, but because I am collected into a wholeness -- no part of me left behind (this in itself is bliss), I go forward to bathe in air that is purest joy -- how can music do this to me? I swing on the groundswells of it. I fall into troughs of anguish which are also delight. If I were sobbing I would not know it. It is all bliss and I am helpless.” When Shinar closes, putting her back out, she feels “the dry grief of dislocation. Loneliness.” This is quite a lot more intense than “flow.”

The female contemporary Western writers have become many: Mary Clearman Blew, Sharon Butala, Linda Hasselstrom, Molly Gloss, Judy Blunt, Teresa Jordan, Gretel Erlich . . . on and on and on. When I returned to the east slope, I thought I would make a place among those writers, but that’s not the way it’s happened. Along came computers and wiped out publishing. But I’ve changed, too.

As a child I read the works of an earlier generation: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Gene Stratton-Porter, Isak Dinesen, and Mary O’Hara. Huge range in skills, life experience, and popularity. None of them conscious feminists, though they never let being female stop them from anything. They were not trapped, abused, or victimized -- their hard times came from everyone’s hard times. I read them innocently, thinking this was the way the world really was.

Now I’ve split. Sometimes I write a little genre Western story. For fun. Other times I reach for Shinar. (Imagine a self-mocking tone here.) At last I begin to grasp the great paradigm shift that was deconstruction and realize how much I must tear apart and destroy among my own assumptions. My family was guided and limited by bourgeois class assumptions from Britain, both the sober Scots with their admiration for education and the howling Irish with their demand for reprisal. My family on both sides stayed within the canon, looked for conventional success. My father’s side bought the books but never read them. My mother’s side believed that money meant virtue.

So I read the books and ignored money in the search for some deeper virtue not based on convention. This pushed my focus from product to process. It’s not safer. It’s scarier. I lose people and feel cold-blooded about it. I gain people and that’s nice, but not crucial. I’m not local anymore, though I love this place, not least because one can reach out to the galaxies in night skies.

I’ve gone feral in some ways. I refuse to belong to anyone, which -- of course -- tempts some people to try to capture me. I distinguish between morality and ethics, morality being conventional good behavior and ethics being principles carefully thought through. Fortunately, most of the time they don’t contradict each other. Subtle pentimento from the University of Chicago remains, but my seminary there has folded and moved out of my concerns, regardless of their protests that they’re making progress. If one must be SOMETHING, Unitarian Universalist is not a bad choice, but I’m no longer institutional. I’ll always be fond of my former families.

Mary O’Hara had to struggle to finance and manage her ranch, though she had a formidable partner. In the end what brought them to their knees was a fire that wiped out a barnful of hay, the profit of a summer, and immolated their beloved workhorse team, screaming and then terribly quiet. Like Isak Dinesen’s coffee plantation in Africa, this fire ended their knife-edge existence. Except that both women could write and DID write and told us everything, or so it seemed. Books are mimesis only, artful. Maybe they aren’t for the reader at all -- maybe they open the gates to Shinar for the writer, a shamanic art practiced alone.

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