2008 :: Issue 3/Fall :: Philosophical Notebooks
Calamity Jane was your hero when you were nine years old. Calamity—this gun toting, hard drinking, tough cowgirl who did whatever the hell she damn well pleased. You couldn’t imagine anything better. You wanted to be as free as all that. But you were a nine-year-old girl, and your mother, even though she let you wear your brother’s hand-me-down corduroys, kept telling you to act like a lady.
Act like a lady. It was an act all right. In fact, everything seemed like an act to you. You could act this way or that way—maybe you should be an actor. People would ask you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And you would say, “An actor.” Or was that actress? Why were there two names for the same thing?
Why were you two things for the same name? Perhaps you could use the name Calamity, too. Just sometimes. Just to name that part of you that could not act like a lady. You could keep it quiet—just call yourself Calamity. Especially those times when you knew Calamity was dressed up as someone else.
Perfect Presence. That’s your name on this canoe trip. Every year you canoe the Green River in Utah, and every year you like to change your name. You’ve always liked changing names, as though you can find your truer essence in a different name. From childhood you’ve changed your name. And now you exist with several names at once.
Perfect presence. It’s what you wish for—absolute awareness in each moment. The name implies that there is an imperfect presence, too—the state you mostly reside in. A state that is made imperfect by the thoughts that pull you away from your immediate experience. You watch yourself all day in the canoe—drifting down the calm river and thinking up stories to involve yourself in. But see this: you DO catch yourself. You do cut the thought and return to the very sightsoundtouch before you. And you marvel at the mind for its intent to lead you away from the herenow.
Is it really the mind that chooses the names? Is it the mind that must name and rename every thing? Is it only the mind that gets the name itself? What you really are may well be unnameable. But you’re not ready to give up trying.
Names. You’ve always liked to name things and people—or rename them. Some of your renaming of friends has stuck; some has not. But you go on naming and renaming, as though it is your business. For plants, animals, birds, trees, you do not like names. You prefer not to know the names of flowers. Someone says, “What kind of flower is that?” and you say with some satisfaction, “I don’t know.” You used to be embarrassed that you did not know the names of the trees in your town. A visitor would come and say, “What kind of tree is that?” And you’d squirm a bit. Was it a maple, an oak, an elm, or something else? Was it a Douglas fir, a juniper, a ponderosa pine or something else? Now you can just say, “I don’t know. I don’t remember the names of things.”
But people you like to name, including yourself. It’s fun to use a different name for different situations, and it seems more true. Why use only one name? If you’re going to be named why not be named over and over? Sometimes this name, sometimes that name.
You wonder if someday you will come to a place of no name at all. No name will fit. No name will be true. You will be the nameless—the unnameable. Although you like to rename yourself and other people, it’s namelessness that really interests you. The unnameable is what you seek.
Suppose your life were a movie. What would you name it? The Adventures of ______? Well, you’d like to be original, that’s for sure. You don’t want a name that is already used. It could be a one-word title like River or it could be something long and promising like The Amazing Extraordinary Discoveries in the Valuable Life of a Midwestern Mystic.
Whatever the case, it’s a name that should stand out, like the person you always meant to be. You meant not to be a run of the mill blind sheep, and times you’ve caught yourself being one, you’ve cringed. You’ve wanted to step out of the ordinary search for happiness and step into the extraordinary search for happiness. They say that the extraordinary search for happiness turns out to be the most ordinary or most simple search of all. You sense that it’s true, but it all seems so complicated and mystifying now. You like the word mystery but you don’t want to be associated with those silly murder mysteries that have the same addictive effects on people’s minds as the soap operas. No, it’s the truer sense of mystery you’d like in your title. The Mystery of _____? Well, you will think about it, and you will come up with hundreds of variations. And in the end you’ll let it go and decide it’s a ridiculous game to try to name the unnameable.
The Catastrophe of the Mind would be a good title for your movie. That’s what you think. You like the word catastrophe. It’s a lot like calamity. How about The Calamity of the Mind? You’d like to get out a dictionary and compare the meanings of the two words. But you and your partner are miles into your wilderness trip on a canoe you’ve named Perfect Drifter. Could there be such a thing as a perfect catastrophe or a perfect calamity? Could Calamity Jane have been Catastrophe Jane equally as well?
One time more recently you read about Calamity Jane. The book implied that she was a cross dresser. She could pass for a boy. She may have even served as a scout in the military. Could she have even danced with the saloon girls?
One thing you like about this wilderness trip is that you can wear anything—even nothing at all—as well as call yourself anything. You’re a cross dresser too in that you don’t want to stick to any one thing. However you’ve never been very feminine (although some would disagree) and you doubt that Calamity ever was. You grew up being called tomboy and you think they would have called Calamity that too if the expression existed 150 years ago. Did it? Who knows what she was called. Is it true that she loved Wild Bill Hickok as the legend says, or did she love the dance hall girls? Maybe both. Is it possible to ever know?
All you really know is that there was this wild west woman whom they called Calamity Jane. She wasn’t tame like Annie Oakley. She was out of anyone’s control—that’s what you’d like to think—because that’s why she was your hero (let’s forget that word heroine). She was your hero after your folks took you to Deadwood where they put on these street shows with the sound of gunshots and sheriffs in badges and gunslingers and dancehall girls. And there she was, Calamity Jane. Kind of wild and nasty and talking loud. She was in no one’s control—except they tried to make you believe she loved Wild Bill and that her love controlled her. But you prefer to think that part was made up. She was, you think, Perfect Presence. Just like you. On the outside she appeared to be a calamity, but on the inside she was pure spontaneous response to life regardless of social norms and names and all that. She was free to be male or female, human or animal. You wanted that freedom too. Your mom and daddy even called you Calamity Jane after that show in Deadwood, and you felt, Yes! That’s right. Call me Calamity.
On this canyon river trip, you like the smell of your own sweat. You never break a sweat in your usual life, but here you drip from the brow and let out loud echoing burps that crash against the canyon walls and make you laugh like a little kid. You can whoop and splash and pee standing up if you feel like it.
You can cry and laugh any old which way with no limitations. That’s what you love about the wilderness. It brings out the natural wild in you. The natural calamity in you. You can be Calamity Jane and do justice to the name.
Yes, you grew up with the name tomboy which you rather like. Tomboys could climb trees and practice the Tarzan yell. Out here in the wilderness of the canyon you let your tomboyness permeate your soul. You climb across steep ledges, tramp into unknown bottoms with tiny frogs leaping away from your feet. You’re not afraid of bats and spiders. Why be afraid? You thank God for bats and spiders that eat up mosquitoes and flies. You’re strong. That’s what you are. That’s what you’ve always wanted to be. You have a holster that carries one liter of water on your hiking trips. Wearing a holster reminds you that when you were a kid you liked to play Cowboys and Indians.
You can’t remember any Indians. Must have been all cowboys. You liked to be the sheriff or marshal like Matt Dillon. The good, the brave, the strong. You also liked to be the outlaw. The desperate, the vulgar, the one destined to die in the shootout. You were never a saloon girl, although you liked Miss Kitty. What was she doing in there? She owned the saloon, that’s what. Your folks said one time Matt Dillon went upstairs with her and then the scene ended. They thought that was funny. You didn’t know what it meant.
Out here you can wear the same shirt three days in a row—or no shirt at all. You can walk around the sandbar completely naked except for the muddy sand covering up your delicate toes. This is very different from when you stand up in front of classes wearing neatly pressed trousers while you discuss the difference between the right word and the almost right word. Like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug—thanks to Mark Twain for that thought. You can scrabble down a red rock wall on your bare butt or almost bare butt. You can squat and shoot a stream of pee over the bare cliff. You feel a sense of accomplishment in that, but you’re lousy at spitting toothpaste into the river. It dribbles off your lip onto your bare breast.
You wonder when your last breath will come. You think about it for hours. You wonder what it would be like not to be able to get one more breath. So you name yourself Gravedigger and dig a big hole. You bury your head in the sand. You feel your lungs close in on themselves. You don’t let yourself die.
Suppose Matt Dillon met Calamity Jane. Or, suppose Calamity Jane met Miss Kitty.
When you were a kid growing up in the Midwest, you spent a lot of weekends on your aunt’s farm. One time they had a litter of kittens there. Your cousin named them Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty, Doc, Chester, and Festus. (Doc later turned out to be a girl.) You wanted to bring Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty home but your mom said you already had too many cats. You only had one cat, and it did not feel like enough.
Now you scan the river washes for arrowheads. You want to find an arrowhead but you’re afraid to find an arrowhead. What would you do if you found one? It’s illegal and morally reprehensible to steal artifacts from protected wild lands. You’ve known morally correct wilderness lovers who’ve found ancient baskets, axe heads, pottery shards—and left them where they lay. (Or so they say.) How impossible that sounds to you! Did they really leave a thousand-year-old basket in a crevice in some remote sandstone wall?
One year on this river trip, you hiked with your partner into an unnamed side canyon. You knew you’d have to name it. You crawled into a crack near a majestic red slot on the hidden side of a huge sandstone wall. That’s where you found it. No, not an arrowhead. Nothing Indian at all. It was a cowboy artifact. A pair of horseshoes, more than 100 years old, nailed together with those old fashioned nails. You found something!
You are so lucky! To you it feels like the find of the century. You’ll take it home to show everyone. That’s when your partner says something about leaving things where they lay. You feel guilty. Yet you covet the find. You imagine some cowboy (male or female) coming across that river bottom a long time ago. He/she climbs way up to that red slot but decides to stash the spare shoes in the crevice to the right. Safe keeping. But the cowboy never returns. Gets shot down in a barroom brawl in town maybe. Or gets bit by a rattlesnake and dies from exposure. Who could ever know?
Sadly, you leave the horseshoes hidden in the crevice and name that piece of river bottom Horseshoe Canyon.
The next year you return to Horseshoe Canyon. You’re eager to see if the horseshoes are still there. Did someone else nab your discovery? You race breathlessly to the red crevice, and with joy you find them again! You’re determined to take them this time because somebody who ought to know told you it’s OK to carry out white man’s trash. You don’t like the name White Man’s Trash, but you’re overjoyed to get the permission to hoard them.
So you nab the rusty shoes, place them in a cloth bag with a drawstring, and carry them all the way back to your little non canyon-colored apartment a thousand miles away. But none of your friends are impressed by your find and then your mother says there’s some just like that out in the barn. You go and look, and hanging up on a hook are some old pairs nailed together, but not canyon-colored like yours.
You begin to feel sorry for the horseshoes. How could you steal them away from their canyon home—their sandy, rocky, hot and frosty red rock paradise? You feel bad about it for a whole year. You keep the find of the century silent inside the cloth drawstring bag.
Finally you go down that same stretch of river again. It takes you days of slow drifting to get to Horseshoe Canyon, and you have to break through a wall of snapping mosquitoes and horseflies to get to the protected crevice. But you don’t care how hard it is. You’ve got a job to do. You’re going to return the horseshoes to the very spot you found them.
And you do. You cover them up with red rock shards so that they aren’t exactly visible.
Up in Cowboy Heaven someone might be giving you a wink.
The whole next year you remember the horseshoes hiding in the red crevice. You think maybe the next time you go down there, you’ll take them again. Why not? The horseshoes can come visit you for a year and then you’ll bring them back again. You’re not sure that’s a good idea. And what if someone else has climbed up there and found them and stolen them away? You would never see them again.
You decide you must go back and look. So you do. That’s this year—right now. And there’s no wall of mosquitoes and horseflies because it’s a low bug year. It is well over 100 degrees in the scorching afternoon sun, though.
Mindfully trudging across the baking river bottom, you look out for those little rattlesnakes you’ve heard about, and you’re careful not to kick the prickly pear cacti. As you approach the red rock slot, you wonder how someone could NOT find those same horseshoes. All these years and you’re the only one?
And then, there they are—just where you left them. This time it’s obvious to you that this major discovery of the century belongs right here.
So you leave them again after turning them over and over in your hands, and you vow to visit Horseshoe Canyon again. It’s your special place. You and that long gone cowboy (girl?) have something in common.
It’s getting close to the end of this river trip. You’ve been having dreams of old lovers you still love and old friends you don’t see anymore. The most memorable dream wasn’t about that. In this dream you are all worried about your appearance because you have to get up in front of people and say something. You think that there’s time to race home and put on better clothes. But you can’t find your car! You’re running across town on foot, ducking in and out of neatly fenced backyards. You even run through other people’s houses! That’s when it happens. You see these two old people—a man and a woman—sitting at a kitchen table loaded down with pages of writing. You notice with curiosity that some of the handwriting is your own. The older couple is grieving over their long lost daughter. That’s when you remember: Perfect Presence. You heard a very wise woman once say that the best you can ever give anyone is your perfect presence. You drop your anxiety about getting better clothes and you just stand there and grieve along with the mother and father.
You are fast asleep in the tent dreaming when there is a sound. It is the perfect wild cry of some animal mother—you feel sure of that. But is it feline? Canine? You’re not sure what it is. The wild thing keeps crying out as if it’s mad at you. What are you doing blocking the way to the river? She’s got babies to feed!
So you get up in the darkness and look outside. That’s when it happens. You are permeated with fear. No, it’s not the wild animal that scares you.
You are standing perfectly naked in the moonless night and the sky is so full of stars that you are shocked. You are trembling. You see the stars for the first time in your life.
Back inside the tent, the wild thing keeps calling and you say to yourself, You are alive in this moment. There is no name for this.