Teri Orr: The year that words left me
I have a most embarrassing confession — during this entire year of COVID I have finished — cover to cover — exactly one book. And I read it in about 36 hours.
My concentration levels for the past year have been in the blender —switched to frappe. I have watched all the streaming and beaming programs that I had even marginal interest in — just to make myself numb. I suspect I have read the equivalent of dozens and dozens of books just by trying to keep up with friends on Facebook and text messages. Most Sundays, I still read great swaths of the New York Times. But reading a physical book escaped me.
Politics were screaming from every channel of all my devices. My auditory and visual senses were assaulted. There were things I needed to know and bear witness to. There were emergency warnings about earthquakes and wildfire paths and avalanche dangers. And death counts and new infections reported and infractions of mask wearing and distancing.
The one book I started and finished so quickly was “Airmail,” written by two women who were unknown personally to each other before the shutdown started. I have met them both — worked with them in figurative ways more than than actual ones. They come from the rich tradition of women writers who write from/about the land — like Terry Tempest Williams and Louise Erdrich.
Before she wrote “Cowboys are my Weakness,” Pam Houston worked here at Dolly’s Bookstore at the same yet different times from when I did. The old Dolly’s … in that same location but before the fire that sent the building to the ground in ashes in the early morning hours in the late ’90s(?). Amy Irvine grew up around here but I don’t remember our paths crossing until just a few years ago when mutual friends, Blake Spalding and Jen Castle — fierce women warriors for the land themselves and owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill — introduced me. I invited Amy to speak at a kind of progressive dinner party event with two other speakers who were adventurers from Africa and South America. Amy delivered a brilliantly written slam/rant soliloquy about open spaces and the politics of the day. And the day — included the delisting of Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments here in Utah by Trump.
Last October I was supposed to be at a book signing for their collaborative work that grew out of an assignment from Orion magazine to write a letter to each other. The letters just continued beyond the assignment, and they chronicled the early days of COVID and the last days of an administration that was destroying sacred places and disenfranchising holy people. My friends at Hell’s Backbone Grill had them sign a copy for me and I meant to pick it up — days later on my way home through that powerful country. But I forgot and in December it was mailed to me from the Hellions. So on New Year’s Day I told myself I would start the year fresh with my reading stacks and I would start with the short paperback of their letters.
The book is dedicated … For Natalie Maines, who wouldn’t just shut up and sing, and for CHICKS everywhere. Which should let you know the territory you are about to cover. But what these two powerful writers do is paint word portraits of humans who have been disenfranchised and animals that have strayed and of working with their hands on ranches and rivers and the deep scars of abusive parents.
In tandem with keyboards they wrote from opposite sides of the Continental Divide — Amy from a corner of Colorado closest to Utah where streams eventually run to the Pacific Ocean. And Pam on another corner at an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet where sun rises first and the same rain cloud that drops on Amy’s side can pass over to Pam’s side and leave water that wanders down streams to end up in the Atlantic.
These letters do what letter writing does best — exposing the intimacies of exchange. The trust in the telling. The muffled but fencepost-solid hope.
Here’s a peek from Pam … Maybe this is what the West was made for, a place where horses and women can work in tandem to smash gender roles and overturn the patriarchy, the oligarchy, ban Roundup forever, make gaslighting a crime that carries with twenty-five years in prison, remand all the rivers and building and national parks after grocery store clerks and ICU nurses and UPS driver. Maybe the world has been waiting for horses and women to team up again, like they did way back when in Mongolia.
And this from Amy … And then there’s the scar tissue in our lungs, from pneumonia, from high altitudes. (I, too, am taking osha tincture right now.) I hate feeling extra vulnerable to this virus, to know that the breath of another human could kill me. I mean how dark is that metaphor? Breath gives life. Sustains it. Just weeks ago, it was given joy to put our head together — to share secrets, hushed jokes, a kiss. To a see a friend and brush cheeks when you hug.
The short book — 163 pages — is a quick read. And then a longer exploration on books both women mention and movements around the West and sacred lands you suddenly want to see for yourself. It is also a powerful homily for rights — those about water and women and animals, large and small, and indigenous peoples.
A few days ago Pam posted this on her Facebook page — You don’t have to be a big success right now. Just be. Survive. Make it to the pillow, try to sleep. What we are living through, right now, the virus, the normalcy of hate by the Right. It’s a lot. Somedays it is too much. Okay to cry. Pat the dog. Forgive yourself.
And that, gentle readers, may be enough to know this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxParkCity in 2009.
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