By Annie O'Shaughnessy (2000)
Ten years old: 1975, still in my boy body, my boy mind. Solid and strong with the endurance to play all day moving from the tangled, viney “jungle” on the far side of the pond to the secret play house in the damp dark basement of my best friend David’s house, to the high speed heroics played out on our banana-seated bikes. I was not a boy, but wanted to be.
I climb trees, even ones sticky with sap. The smell of pine hangs on me as I lie in bed at night. I ride up the hill on Saturday, find David and set to digging a big hole in the dirt. We collect old pans and buckets from his mom’s messy kitchen and create a “hooey booey stew.” We are hobos having our meal by the tracks; we are Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone eating by the fire deep in the wilderness. The meal over, David and I pour our concoctions into the deep hole, add dirt and more water – he yells, “Get the hose!” – and then rolling up our “tuff jeans,” we stand in the muddy mix of grass and water and dirt, stomping up and down, giggling and falling over. What pleases me is to feel it between my toes and to feel the tightness of mud drying on my shins as we catch our breath lying by the hole – sun-baked. Afterwards, bellies to the ground, David and I crawl under the prickly, holly branches to get to our secret fort. It pleases me to taste the salty sweet of blood from a scrape that I refuse to get a band-aid for. Later, I ride my bike home from David’s full speed down the hill, but not fast enough to appease my full bladder. “Wonder what it would feel like to just pee as I ride my bike?” So I pee my pants and the sensation is a wonderful release – a naughty rule-breaking. And in the summer I jump with my brothers and sisters off a 25 foot high cliff down into the river where my dad waits for us. Oh…the force of the cold water on my skin and the strength of my father’s big hand as he guides each of us towards the rock to climb out. Summer nights I lie on the dewy grass, watch for shooting stars and try to the name the constellations as my dad has taught me. Seven Sisters, Orion the Hunter, the Big and Little Dippers.
Maybe it was exhaustion that prevented my parents from scolding me, the seventh child, for coming home dirty and scraped every night. Or maybe they saw my joy and decided they could not squash it – giving me the blessing of freedom. A family friend called me “pig-pen” with admiration. But it was not filth, it was dirt from the Earth that covered me at the end of every day. I like to fancy that the Earth became part of me this way – adding to the rich mix of events and sensations that have brought me here. I rose in the morning to follow my “one necessity” – a child’s necessity – to go where-ever my adventures led me.
Fifteen years old: September night. I am a woman-child, all long legs and big feet, oblivious to the unsaid codes of teenage girl behavior – too open, not coy.
I walk out of the dorm and am nearly knocked over by the lush smells of a new landscape. It is the rich brown water of the pond, the forsythia and the newly cut grass. It is the heavy warm air. And the gauzy sundress I wear. All of it stirs me and electrifies me. An awkward ex-tomboy, I blurt out what I am feeling using the wrong words. “I feel so horny” is what I say, and my peers look on aghast. But what I was trying to name is the feeling of my beloved wild, primal self coming up and meeting the world.
That year I learn the taste of my own sweat every day, running after school, playing basketball and lacrosse. I learn the new shapes and curves of my body and explore its secret places. I discover the smell of my first love’s breath and the musky sweet taste of the skin on his neck as we lie on a blanket deep in the woods away from school; I memorize the feel of the cords of muscle at the small of his back through his thin shirt. I am a wild mix of shyness and fear, pride and desire. The world is dripping-rich, lush.
Twenty-one years old: warm granite and frozen waterfalls, alpine gardens and exposed mountain ridges.
The sun is hot, but dry and the sky a crystalline blue. I am up early to rock climb. Approaching the cliff, I step onto a three-acre-wide expanse of boulders. The naked ones, the ones without lichen, give testament to a recent slide – the mountain sloughing off another layer. Some boulders tip and rock as I step on them. I stare intently at the rock in front of me – picking the best route I can. Canon cliff – 1000 feet of granite is there just outside my vision, but I can feel its massiveness, its overwhelming bulk. I am a small speck here on this talus field; sweat drips off my nose. Pete, my partner, is somewhere too, picking his way gingerly up the slope. I can smell the baking granite now and a peregrine falcon’s penetrating, pulsing screech pulls my eyes up and up and up. There, circling and crying is the falcon. I am dizzy from it.
Mid-day, shoulder to shoulder on a small belay ledge halfway up,we share a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Now I smell his sweat mixed with mine, mixed with the granite. Our feet dangle and the thermal traveling up the rock blows hot air in our faces. I close my eyes and swim in this feeling. Near the top, the smell hits me first as the down draft carries clover and lichen and juniper to me. The hike down is long; brings our aching sweaty bodies to the lake. There it is. Wet, dark. The clothes come off and without words we dive into the cold mountain pond. Cool bodies, wet, hidden under the tannic water touch and we really look at each other – grinnin’ fools. Wild things.
Thirty-Five years old: mother to Ben and Emma, seven and nine.
Cold mountain water rushes over us as we pull ourselves along the rock face to get closer to the waterfall. We climb up onto the ledge and I jump first into the foamy tumult of water. I wait in the eddy below the current for Ben and Emma. One after the other they yell, “Yee – haaa!”, jump and come careening towards me, dog-paddling furiously – smiling. I guide them with my big hands to the side. I feel their hearts hammering as I hold their cool little bodies closely. We watch a young man jump 40 feet off a bridge in perfect form. My son asks me, “Why did he do that, mom?” And I say, “To feel alive.”
I have felt disjointed in this world when I have not been able to move over rock or paddle on a river or sleep on a mossy clearing deep in the woods. But the wild child visits almost daily now – I have made room for her. The voices in my head that tell me to “act my age” are quieter. I try to walk around wide open to the possibility that every smell, every sensation of sweat on my skin, a kiss on the nape of my neck, dirt under my fingernails, soreness in well-worked muscles is me welcoming my wild self. And I find that I am “turned on” every day – electric-alive – giving my Self the blessing of freedom. And yes, it is often perceived that I think too much of sex or talk too much of the wonderful smell of my lover after he chops wood. But it is not this; it is me moving closer to my necessity.
This essay was first published in the Heron Dance journal.