A Thank You to Yellowstone (and your Greater Ecosystem)

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Me in Yellowstone National Park, the last time I went (I was 19).

“Look! It’s in there—can you see it? Do you see it?” My mom pointed into the woods by the side of the road in Yellowstone National Park. Cars had heaped themselves on the side of the road, a sure sign of a wildlife sighting in Yellowstone, and sure enough, the hushed voices breathed the word with reverence: Bear! Bear! 

“I don’t see it! Please, please, where is it?” I heaved my eyes at the woods and searched the trees for movement. “Mom, where?” Desperation slipped into my heart. At nine years old, patience came to me in transient bursts. It’s only slightly better now. I had wanted to see wildlife in the wild my entire life, and until the previous year such a thing proved difficult, for my family had lived in Reno, Nevada, and we were so fascinated by the occasional deer spotted in the nature near the city that we have hourlong videos of the animals staring blandly at the excitedly-wiggling video camera. Now that we had moved to Montana, a deer spotting was old news. I saw them often, especially on the sides of the I-90 freeway, dead from crossing without looking both ways.

But a bear was something else. A bear, a real bear–why, I dreamed of seeing a bear! And that day in Yellowstone my mom was looking straight at a bear and I could not see it.

“It’s gone. I think it went farther back into the forest,” my mom said. We walked to the car, and I sat inside, my young heart devastated at my failure to see the bear.

But a few hours later, my dad stopped the car behind a line of traffic on a road in the park. “I wonder what’s going on,” he said as he rolled our windows down.

“Bears!” I squeaked as the black mother bear and her two mini-me cubs crossed the road and sauntered into the field below. Rangers had come to the scene and were keeping tourists out of the bears’ way, but the bears did not give the humans a glance. They were not afraid, nor were they belligerent. The scene stayed in my mind for days, and it remains there now.

A year later, on another trip to Yellowstone, I sat staring out the window in the backseat of the Toyota 4Runner, letting my imagination run wild among the hills and forests and cliffs and mountains that grace my favorite national park. A movement on a hill to the right snagged my eye, and I gasped. “A grizzly bear!” I whispered. The golden beast plodded up the hill, its humped rump and shoulder outlined in sharp curves against the cerulean sky, its fur rippling like prairie grasses in the low wind.

I lost myself in what I saw, and by the time I managed to tell the others of my discovery, the bear had gone over the hill.

“Are you sure it was a grizzly?” they asked.

“I’m sure,” I said, and though I was only ten years old I knew, after two years in Montana, what a grizzly looked like and what it could do, and that picture, like that of the black bear, sunk into my mind.

*

In the spring of 2012, I took my last trip to Yellowstone before my family moved away from Montana. I told my family and Louis, who was my boyfriend at the time, that I had seen many animals in our time in Montana: more black bears, the grizzly, coyotes, a fox, skunks, moose, elk, bald eagles, and countless rabbits and deer and squirrels but that I regretted not having ever seen a wolf.

“I want to see a wolf before I leave,” I said as we drove into the park. The early spring had left the hills and riverbeds yellow and patchy with snow and mud, but their beauty still reached into me and bound me to the land. Please let me see a wolf today, I thought. Please.

I did not have to wait long. Though I had visited Yellowstone numerous times and had never seen a wolf, that day a pack was feeding on a carcass almost right inside the park’s entrance, and a devoted group of wolf-watchers (who followed the pack all day with their expensive cameras and binoculars) allowed us to look in their equipment and see the wolves closely. I stared through the lenses and watched: there were a few black-colored ones, and a few grey ones. The carcass lay limply on the ground, and the wolves ate it in bits. If you’ve ever seen The Grey, you’ve seen giant wolves lunging for flesh with murderous breath and gleaming fangs. These Yellowstone wolves did not do that at all (and I hate that movie). They simply sunned themselves, got up, took some bites of the carcass, and laid back down.

The sight engraved its beauty into my brain, and I left the park that day thanking God and the wilderness for the many visions of natural grace and life that run through my head and inspire my writing every day. I write about Montana—nonfiction about my childhood in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, fiction set in its rugged, serene beauty. Granted, most of Yellowstone lies in Wyoming and I’m not sure if the animals I saw there were in Montana or Wyoming, but both states are wonderful and someday I hope I can live somewhere where people have not smothered the wilderness with pollution and crowds and noise. But for now, those scenes—the black bear and her cubs, the grizzly going over the hill, the fox disappearing into the trees by Bear Creek, the wolf pack in Yellowstone—give me the peace I crave, the stillness that settles deep in my soul and allows me to think, and for that personal, eternal gift, I am thankful.

 

Laura

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Being silly 🙂

 

This week I’m linking up with Kristen Oliphant and other wordsmiths for Not So (Small) Stories. Our prompt this week is ‘personal’. http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/03/24/small-stories-seventh-edition/

(I still don’t know how to make the pretty link-picture appear here…sigh…oh well.)

 

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The Writing Babies Didn’t Die

When the letters came, I just wanted to lie on the floor like my dog, Bella, here and cry...(only she was quite happy in this picture, since she was hanging out inside!)

When the letters came, I just wanted to lie on the floor like my dog, Bella, here and cry…(only she was quite happy in this picture, since she was hanging out inside!)

I hadn’t expected it to come in the mailbox, and so when I reached into the metal depths and dragged the pile of envelopes and junk-newspaper-things out and saw it there, my knees became hollow. I thought they’d email me. But they—one of the universities I applied to for graduate school (which will remain nameless)—had sent me a letter.

A pitifully thin one, with few words—but the words sunk into my skin and made their way to my heart. Once there, they battered it with their little fists until the tears that I had sworn not to cry had nowhere to go but up and out of my eyes.

“(Insert school name here) rejected me,” I said to my husband, Louis.

“Ah, I’m sorry. That sucks. But hey, there are five more programs! Don’t let this get to you,” he said. And my mom said the same thing—try not to take it personally. But for the specific degree to which I applied—a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing—I had sent writing samples to the schools. So, I thought. They read my words and hated them. Fine. That’s only one school. I didn’t want to go there that much, anyway.

And then I got another thin letter. And then an email popped into my inbox and pushed a sliver of hope into me right before sucking it away again. We regret to inform you…they began, and though I had built the best casing around my heart that I could, I cried. For the entire day. In one week—which happened to be my most stressful week of the quarter already—five out of the six M.F.A. programs I applied to rejected me.

Louis and I started talking seriously about Plan B, and we became elated with what we decided. I applied to a different kind of program, which brought me joy to think of joining. I almost want Plan B more than Plan A now, I thought. But the sting from the letters and emails of rejection bubbled under my skin and cloaked me in sadness. After all my hard work, after everything I have done to learn all I can about my craft and about literature, after the quarters of straight A grades, this is what happens. This is my reward.

When Louis asked me why the rejections bothered me so much, I could not pinpoint why. People get rejected every day, and they do not spend days drowning in their own tears. They shake the hurt away and face the day with joy.

“Well,” I told him. “It’s like they killed my writing babies.” And, as I said that, I realized it was true, because as I spoke, more salt rolled from my eyes. “I’m having a pity party, and I can’t stop it.” He let me mourn the dead pieces of writing, which, I slowly realized, are not really dead to anyone but to those who rejected them. They are still my writing babies, and they will find people to appreciate them. And none of them was And the Blackbirds Mock, which is my biggest baby and has its own opportunities, its own life apart from any M.F.A. program.

In the last week, I have finished feeling sad about the rejections. My family’s (as in Louis and me) future includes graduate school next year no matter what—it’s where we must go in order to keep moving forward, keep pursuing the dreams that we have whittled from the titanic visions of success from freshman year to less grandiose, more meaningful goals we know will bring us real contentment. And he is still waiting to hear from a few programs, and I am still running to the mailbox each day to search for a letter from the sixth M.F.A. school. But if I do not get in—and I am expecting not to—I know I will cry, collect the pieces of my dignity from their places on the floor, and move on to better things.

And besides—I graduated from college today with my Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a minor in Spanish. The hard work I moaned about last week brought me that degree, and no one can take that from me, not even if they tell me a bachelor’s degree is worth less than it used to be. I have completed something big and have learned an incredible amount about life, writing, reading, critical analysis, science, math, art, love, history, humanity, and friendship in the past almost-four years, and that in itself is worth the work. A bachelor’s degree is also a stepping stone to a master’s degree, which is then a route to a career I will love, and to me, that will never be worthless.

Laura Melchor, B.A. (I can’t help writing my name like that…I promise it’s only this once. 😉 )

I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant for Not So (Small) Stories, Spring Break Edition: http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/03/18/small-stories-spring-break-edition/ 

I STILL HATE PICKLES

The Chapel Crowd

People loved this cover art my sister made for the manuscript! I am using it in my final portfolio for the Honors Program.

People loved this cover art my sister made for the manuscript! I am using it in my final portfolio for the Honors Program.

I’m linking up with Lisa-Jo Baker and the Five Minute Friday Crowd to write about this week’s prompt: Crowd. The rules are simple. Write for five minutes, don’t worry about editing and perfection, and then post and link up.

I awoke with fear clutching my throat. What if I get up there and I can’t do it? What if I feel so nervous I have to run out the door of Matheson Hall and be sick during the presentation? What if? 

The morning of my final presentation for And the Blackbirds Mock, which I wrote for my Honors Scholarship/Senior Project, had arrived, and my two weeks of fretting about it had done me ill. I have presented many times throughout my college career, but this one felt so important and huge that it brought me to tears when I thought about actually doing it. If I failed, I would not graduate (I thought, and it may be true). If I do not graduate, I do not know what I will do, because I am done with classes. 

Yikes. My mind works in an awful way sometimes. I arrived early to Matheson Hall, which used to be a small chapel and has stained-glass windows and red carpet and wooden beams in the ceiling. I pulled a table in front of me and sat on a cushy red bench and laid my precious manuscript in front of me.

The people began to trickle in: my husband, my good friend, my professors and advisors. More of them came than I thought would, and I stared at them and listened to my thumping heartbeat. What if I fa–I began to say to myself, but then I stopped. In the faces of the crowd, I saw only care, love, support. No one wanted me to fail. No one wanted me to feel overly nervous.

And so I smiled at them, prepared my voice for inflections galore, introduced my project, and read its first chapter.

At the presentation’s end, they came to me and told me how much they appreciated my presentation, my story, even my writing. I realized that these people had given me the courage to stay calm and even—yes—have FUN! I would do it all again in an instant, but I’d save myself the pain of weeks of anxiousness beforehand, because I now know I had nothing to fear from my sweet chapel crowd.

Laura

<a href=”http://lisajobaker.com/five-minute-friday/&#8221; title=”Five Minute Friday”><img src=”http://lisajobaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/5minutefriday.jpg&#8221; alt=”Five Minute Friday” title=”Five Minute Friday” style=”border:none;” /></a>

 

The Snowbank and the Cloverleaf

Me at about ten or eleven years old, on the good old Toyota pickup somewhere in the mountains near my home. Clancy is there, too. :)

Me at about ten or eleven years old, on the good old Toyota pickup somewhere in the mountains near my home. Clancy is there, too. 🙂

My dad sat beside me in our Toyota pickup truck and watched the straight country road as I drove, my ten-year-old hands dreamily languishing on the wheel. A turn loomed before us, a sharp one that bent left, and I gazed at it without seeing it. I don’t remember what occupied my mind—maybe I was saving the human race from a horrible natural disaster, or rescuing animals from a gouged and ruined wilderness, or fighting in the American Civil War, my hair shorn like a boy’s and my heart beating to the rhythms of justice and liberty for all.

“TURN!” My dad’s elevated voice popped my heroic daydreams. I stared at the snowbank that fast approached and pressed the clutch with my left foot, preparing to shift to a lower gear so I could turn without crashing. Since I had just learned how to drive a manual transmission, I still had trouble not looking down at the gear stick so I could see the numbers and know which gear I needed to shift to. I tried to stare at the road and sneak a glance at the gear stick at the same time, but my dad, as always, caught me.

“Don’t look down,” he said, his hands hovering over the wheel so that he could grab it in case my ministrations did not succeed. I cringed as I grabbed the knob and shifted down and turned left, barely escaping a collision with the pile of cold smoke. Back then (in the early 2000s–oh so long ago), few people drove on that road, and no cars’ drivers witnessed my feeble driving skills or my young age. My dad always said that as long as we stuck to country roads and I did not break the law while driving, police could not pull me over and discover that I was ten.

We both allowed puffs of relieved breath to spill from our lips as we continued down the road. After my dad lectured me on the importance of paying attention to my surroundings, we both laughed a little. That’s what we do when we’re nervous or sad or relieved.

Five years later, I had taken Driver’s Ed, had a learner’s license tucked in my wallet, and was again driving in the pickup truck with my dad in the passenger seat. This time my sister was also with us, and I had long left the country roads in favor of the I-90 freeway that led from our home to the town of Bozeman.

“Exit here,” my dad said, pointing to an exit that curved into a cloverleaf ramp.

“Got it,” I said, staring at the mountains and missing the yellow sign that advised drivers to slow down to a speed of 25 miles per hour. My odometer read 75 miles per hour, and before my Dad could tell me to shift down, I flew onto that cloverleaf ramp with gusto. The poor pickup danced on its left side of wheels while its right side hung in the air above the road for a split second, and icy fear clutched my bones as the lives of three-fourths of my family dangled in the hushed and taut space between life and death.

When the pickup came down again, my Dad’s mouth gaped and his eyes bulged. “There was a sign,” he whispered. “25 miles per hour.”

“I didn’t see it,” I said.

“You have to pay attention,” my Dad said, laughter bubbling from his throat. “Or else we could all die.”

My sister and I joined his nervous laughter, and I swore to myself that I would always pay attention, for bringing tragedy to my family was the last thing I wanted to have happen as the result of my daydreams and imagination.

The snowbank and the cloverleaf incidents have lodged themselves in my mind, and I have recently begun to apply them to a situation besides driving: writing. I keep a notebook in my purse for the whispers of inspiration that sneak through my day, and that makes me pay more attention to my surroundings—to the people and nature and words I see and hear and feel. But I also learn to see the moments in my writing where I have nearly crashed. Those moments come when I do not invest a proper amount of time and thought into a piece of work, or when I have written something I know is not wholly honest, or when I have failed to allow a story or anecdote lead me in the direction it needs to go.

Because of the cloverleaf and the snowbank, I know that when I make the mistake of not paying attention to what I write, I can recognize it, laugh, and move forward.

Laura

I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant for more Not So (Small) Stories at http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/03/11/small-stories-sixth-edition/ . This week we’re working on the hook and our writing prompt is ‘drive.’ Join us!

Afternoon Tea, Willa Cather, and Old Plantations

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A lovely historical brick building near our inn.

“Well, crap,” I thought, looking at the list of accepted papers to the Sigma Tau Delta 2014 International Convention. “I’m not on the list. I guess my paper was awful.” I sighed, notified my fellow Sigma Tau members—for any who do not know, Sigma Tau Delta is the international English honor society, and I’m the vice president of my school’s chapter—that I had not been accepted and, with a self-flagellating heart, tried to forget about my failure.

Weeks later, in early January, I sat on the couch at my parent’s home in Arizona. My husband and I were there babysitting my dog (who lives with them right now because we can’t have dogs in our cottage in California) while my parents celebrated their 25th anniversary with a Hawaii vacation, and I had not paid attention to email for days. But I ran to my laptop to do something on Facebook and glanced at my emails. I had one new email, and I looked at it. It’s probably just junk, I thought.

It wasn’t. It was an email from Sigma Tau Delta, letting me know that my paper, which I titled “Commercialized Catholicism: Frontier Life Recedes,” had been accepted for the convention. I shrieked and ran into the living room, startling both my husband and my dog. “I’m going to Savannah, Georgia!” I said as I danced around the room. I have driven through Georgia before but never stopped to enjoy the state, and aside from Georgia, the only other Southern state I’ve visited is Tennessee (unless Florida counts).

The convention happened this past weekend, and I am grateful to my school’s College of Arts and Sciences and English Department for providing the necessary funds for me to travel all the way to Georgia with our chapter’s sponsor and a graduate student whose paper also received acceptance. We left on Wednesday night and endured a red-eye flight to Atlanta and a shorter jaunt to lovely Savannah. After we took naps and showers, we walked through the streets, which are peppered with tree-filled squares from colonial times, and had tea at the Gryphon tea house. I relaxed as we sat, sipped, munched, and chatted for at least two hours, trying not to think about the dreaded thing I had actually gone to Georgia to do: present my paper in front of other English enthusiasts from all over the United States and the world.

My pot of vanilla tea at the Gryphon tea house.

My pot of vanilla tea at the Gryphon tea house.

A glimpse of the Savannah River.

A glimpse of the Savannah River.

The next day inevitably crept into being, and at 9:30 in the morning I stood in Suite 404 on the 4th floor of the Marriott Savannah Riverfront and delivered my words on catholicism as presented in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I wrote for a Southwest Literature class I took last school year. Death Comes is one of my top five favorite books, and I tried to remember that as I trembled and sweated my way through reading the paper with as clear a voice as I could muster.

About halfway through, the symptoms began. My face started to tingle, my breath became quick and shallow, and heat spread through my skin like those forest fires Smokey Bear says only YOU can prevent. I could do nothing about this fire of nerves. I had thought I was fine—nervous, but fine. I wondered, as I continued to speak about Cather’s beloved Father Latour and his gentle ministrations to Southwestern Natives, Mexicans, and untamed white people, what would happen next. Would I explode? Would I fall over? Would I simply cease to breathe? My red Nalgene water bottle mocked me from its place on the desk where I had been sitting. You should have brought me to the podium with you, it whispered. I cursed my forgetfulness and prayed for the discomfort to dissipate.

And it did, for reasons I do not know. My breath became regular once more, and my voice stopped shuddering. I put extra pomp and circumstance into my last pages to make up for any deficiencies from the part of the paper in which nerves had engulfed me, smiled, and sat down again. It’s over! My brain squealed. Now I can enjoy Savannah! 

I listened to various panels during the rest of the day—a Jane Austen panel full of arguments over whether film adaptations of her books are adequate, a relationship poetry panel stuffed with sensual stanzas and dripping with drama and depression, and a panel on Victorian literature centered largely on Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors. I enjoyed the following day even more, for we went to the Wormsloe Plantation, built in the 1700s, and saw a stunning driveway lined with 400 live oak trees and a languishing marsh that reminded me of Western prairies. Later we took an after-hours tour (led by a regular Southern belle) of the Victorian-era Bonaventure Cemetery.

The entrance to Wormsloe Plantation.

The entrance to Wormsloe Plantation.

I would return to Savannah in an instant if I could, and I’d bring my husband with me. The city boasts drowsy blue skies, brilliant brick and wood buildings, and a wide, lazy brown river—and myriad tasty restaurants filled with sweet tea, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, and other not-Southern delights. I am glad that writing leads to opportunities like travel to a new region and city, but I desperately wish I could give presentations without that mid-speech nerve-punch. If anyone has tips on how to remain calm in stressful situations, please share them with me in the comments section! I’ve delivered at least forty presentations during my undergraduate years of college, and I still get this nervous. And my next presentation happens to be my Honors Scholarship Project which is, as you know, And the Blackbirds Mock. That’s in less than two weeks. YIKES! Keep this nervous, happy, refreshed-but-busy student writer in your thoughts and prayers.

LauraImage

<em>Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant’s group that meets each week to tell their Not So (Small) Stories. In this fifth edition, the prompt is ‘Word. Speech. Language’ and the goal is to develop our voice. If you’d like to join us, the link is <a title=”Not So (Small) Stories: fifth edition” href=”http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/03/04/small-stories-fifth-edition/&#8221; target=”_blank”>here</a> (the link up is open until Thursday evening).</em> <center><a href=”http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/03/04/small-stories-fifth-edition/&#8221; target=”_blank”><img alt=”I STILL HATE PICKLES” src=”http://i1294.photobucket.com/albums/b603/istillhatepickles/storiesbutton_zpsfd8f0b65.jpg&#8221; /></a></center><em> </em>