On Friday morning, I was interviewed for a profile in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. The reporter and I were talking about the in-between places, and at one point, she introduced the Buddhist concept of bardo. Its most strict definition is the liminal state between death and life, but it’s also invoked when we face ruptures in what we perceive as the continuity of our lives.
The term resonated for me on so many levels—from my illness and recovery, to living through a global pandemic, to waiting for a decision from the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Abbott about my friend Quin’s case, which we’ll hear any day. In the days leading up to execution, death row prisoners in Texas are allowed an hour-long phone call every night. Quin’s been dividing his time between calling his great-aunt Mattie, his twin brother, and other friends.
When I spoke to Quin the other day, he mentioned he’s been receiving hundreds of letters, largely from the Isolation Journals community. He’s been so moved by them that he has to read in small chunks, then get up and do something else to give himself a moment to recover. Like all Texas death row prisoners in the days before execution, he’s on mandatory 24-hour suicide watch, with guards waking him up every 30 minutes during the night to make sure he’s still alive. He has been trying not to break down or cry at any point in the day, lest it draw more attention and increase the surveillance.
Quin told me he’s a little worried that he won’t have time to respond to all of the letters. His priority right now is writing last words to the people he’s close to. I asked him if his hands ever get tired of writing ten-page missives. He said yes, his hands cramp, and he has some pretty serious calluses. He says they sell typewriters from the prison commissary, but that they cost $350. “Imagine that,” he said. “Selling a person in prison a $350 typewriter. Y’all out of your rabbit-ass mind!” Such lines bring plenty of laughter in the midst of a week that feels heavy, even heart-breaking.
The other day Quin told me, “I’m prepared to live, and I’m also prepared to die—because I have to be.” From experience, I’ve had to learn how to sit in that uncertainty without spinning into anxiety. Moments like this feel familiar. As I wrote in Between Two Kingdoms, “Wherever I am, wherever we go, home will always be the in-between place, a wilderness I’ve grown to love.”
Today we have a prompt by the amazing artist Diana Weymar—about a literal wilderness and the various selves that place conjures into being.
P.S. Next Sunday, May 23 at 1pm ET, I’ll be hosting the brilliant writer and teacher Melissa Febos for a Studio Visit. We’ll be talking about her new book Girlhood, about wildness, and about craft. Become a paid subscriber to join us!
Wilderness of Childhood by Diana Weymar
I grew up in the wilderness of Northern British Columbia in the 1970s. This line alone fills a book in my mind. I start by telling you what I didn’t have: indoor plumbing, electricity, neighbors, plastic toys, pavement, a school, television, bedroom walls, visitors, playdates, a Christmas tree, Halloween, shopping trips… and the list is long.
And then you ask me how it was? (Sometimes with a concerned tone.) And I tell you that it was the best time of my life because I didn’t know otherwise. There was nothing to compare. There was no one to compare myself to or any other sort of framework into which I had to fit myself. I just was. It was just me, my parents, a younger brother, a log cabin, a river, bears, fishing nets, mountains, moose, a wood stove, tools, a dog team, a few trips to the village or reservation, and chickens. (My best friend was a chicken until she was dinner.)
I find myself telling you about everything I did have because I didn’t know what I was missing. Not just this. I also knew the sound of the river, the smooth wooden seat of an outhouse, the surface of a dirt path under bare feet, the busy network of ants beneath a stone, and the diamonds in the snow as it sprayed off the sides of a dogsled on a sunny day.
I would try to tell you about isolation, the wilderness, and that it was a time when I was never closer to both an imaginary world and the real world at the same time. Did I even know the difference? Did it matter? And I would end by telling you that I will always be looking for this feeling, this connection, and that the wild parts in me will look for the wild parts in you.
Your prompt for this week:
Where do you find the wilderness within yourself? Is it a new place or an old place? A physical place? A spiritual place? A place you remember or a place you forget?
Diana Weymar is an artist and activist. She grew up in the wilderness of Northern British Columbia, studied creative writing at Princeton University, and worked in film in New York City. She is the creator and curator of Interwoven Stories and The Tiny Pricks Project, both of which are open for public participation. Her work has been exhibited and collected in the United States and Canada.