Caitlin Scarano: With the Head of a Bear

“As if anger could be a kind of vocation for some women. It is a chilling thought.”

 –Anne Carson

 “When what we understand about what we are changes, whole parts of us fall mute.”

–Frank Bidart

I think that I’ve learned: everything deserves gentleness.

These days, I tell more people about what happened. When I told one friend he said, “Humans are full of rage.” Even though I agree, I was angry. I wanted to defend you.

Later, this friend will explain to me bipolarity and anti-psychotic drugs.

The boat shop’s sign: “We’re ready for spring, are you?”

In Fairbanks, Alaska the snow finally melts in late May.  The ditches and dirt roads fill with mud. The birch trees, lifeless all winter, awake and begin to bud. We make ready for roads. A favorite game of ours is to talk about the adventures we will have together.  One night, you decide we should bike down the coast to Washington. “But we’ll both need better bikes.” As if this is the only thing.

When you talk about what happened in September, you speak in code: I exploded. The bad thoughts. My happy pill. And then you’ll change the subject. What I am trying to do is speak honestly about something that matters.

To try to understand I read through the codes and criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

1. The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time-consuming (take more than 1 hour a day), or significantly interfere with the person’s normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.

How long would it take to bike from Alaska to Washington? This question deflates us.  I’ve never biked more than a dozen miles at one time. We talk about taking a smaller trip to prepare us. We could bike out of Tangle Lakes surrounded by mountainous tundra – that could be done in less than two weeks. We look at each other for a moment. Except, of course, there will probably be bears.

When you told me what was happening to you, we were in your parents’ kitchen. Sunlight all over your skin. Your parents were in New Mexico while cancer slowly killed your aunt. When I left the house I was calm, businesslike. You were crying and asked me to hug you and I said I could not.

In the springtime we both have nightmares about bears. I have many nightmares about many things, and wake up screaming beside you often. We’re both fascinated by what we fear. We are both drawn to each other for the strangeness and threat we offer. This state, this crystalline paradise of what could harm, attracts a certain kind and instills a certain kind of attraction. I had to remember, not to forgive you (there was never anything to forgive), but to credit you for who you are.

In a recent fight you were upset and defensive but surprisingly composed.  I said, “I want you to be more adult sometimes. I want you to take care of me when I’m in a moment of need.”

You said, “You don’t let me.” I stared at the rug. Somewhere along the way, I infantilized you.

Our friend J. left Alaska midway through the three-year creative writing program, during the depth of winter’s dark, when the sun barely rose for three hours a day and temperatures reached 50° below 0° Fahrenheit.  He moved back to Michigan to be with his ex-fiancé. Now that he is back there, after he’s packed up his cabin, given up his teaching assistantship, and sold his jeep, she changes her mind.

He writes me: “I am not mad. I am looking forward to my new life.” He wants to move to Taiwan again to teach English. For a while, you and I talked about moving to South Korea or Thailand to teach. It was one of the adventures. This game serves multiple purposes, some healthy and some unhealthy.

I promise to not blame you for what you cannot control.

2. Recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety or distress

I do not tell you that he and I talked about moving to Taiwan together when I thought I would never talk to you again.

Taiwan, he said, is beautiful.

The adventure game, listing off places to travel or move to, places far from here, begins my first fall in Alaska when we start dating. You’d been to the Lower 48, but you’d never been to New Orleans. That decides it: we’ll take a road trip from here to New Orleans that summer.

With you, I do things that I never would on my own, that I wouldn’t think myself capable of.  They are small things. But I needed to be reminded of the value in risk taking.

We never made it to New Orleans.

That summer, to compensate, we drive to Talkeetna and camp. We drive to Valdez and camp. We both watch for bears. In Valdez, we fuck in the tent, humid air pressing against the sheer walls.  I can hear voices of the family in the campsite next to ours. The voices drift.

I moved into your cabin last May. I moved out the following September. I slept on J.’s couch for weeks.

In October, after we get back together, your counselor asks you if I am a bully.

When I met L. in Ohio a few years ago, she still had the aroma of a sorority girl from a churchgoing family. One night, smoking cigarettes in the rain, she explained to me why she and Christ disapprove of homosexuality. Six months later, when she came out, she had a mental breakdown and believed she was going to die. She started seeing a therapist and taking Lexipro. Later she explains to me: when you go off Lexipro, you can actually hear electrical snaps in your brain.  What we fear, in fact, is rarely outside of us.

 3. The thoughts, impulses, or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems.

Because when I say I love you it means I do not know what to do with this life.

 I woke up last night and saw a trapdoor in our bedroom wall. Then I remembered where we are. That we are safe and you have not been troubled for many months. But that is the trapdoor, the danger in safety. Everything is a threat, what may cause you anxiety. The unpredictability of calm.

We talk about where we’ll move to next: Flagstaff, Chicago, Gunnison, Olympia, the Bronx, Salt Lake. I wonder if you will be able to live in a city now, and then I feel guilty for doubting.

Please believe me, the desire to control comes from care. The first man I might have loved told me this before he removed himself from my life.

How far can we move to get ahead of our sicknesses?

I catalogue your side of the medicine cabinet: Paroxetine HCL 20 MG (generic for Paxil), Alprazolam .5 MG (generic for Xanax), and Kavinace – Serotonin GABA.

Silence, that strangeness, that stranger, is its own presence, and can become a person you sit and sip tea with (much like death). This person especially likes to visit at night when you are sleeping and cannot see him, so I am not sure if he really came or if I imagined him. Just because you are diagnosed does not mean you are the only one who is sick from imagining too much.

You must have a mind for feeling but know that this mind may destroy you.

During a foggy autumn morning bus ride in Denali, I finally see my first bears – a sow and two cubs in a cranberry patch. I am sitting next to you on the bus. Later, we watch a grizzly run at a man standing between his bike and a cliff.  The week before a bear killed a man in the park for the first time in the park’s history. Actually, we see eight bears that day. Does the novelty wear off?

If we could, would we want to wander? Is adventure outside or inside of a person?

A writer I respect tells me about her new book on the relationship between humans and bears in Alaska. She laughs dryly, “Spoiler alert – there is none.”

I’ve tried to teach you that these thoughts are not real because they are disconnected from action. I’ve tried to teach you that love is real because it is our actions. I also believe that there will never again be a time when I refuse to touch you.

Our second summer together we go again to Talkeenta. We pitch the tent in a stand of trees by the river and I cannot sleep. I hear a girl in a campsite near by tell her friends that she saw a bear. I hear the Susitna break as the ice jam up river gives. Whole trees barrel down the river, which spills over into the drainage sloughs surrounding our campsite. Ice chuncks the size of Volkswagens shutter past. The ground thunders. We are nearly flooded that night and have to cross water to get back to the car. The water is freezing. We sit in the car, wet and shivering, too stunned to speak. Then we drive back to Fairbanks at 4AM and watch the sun come up, though it had barely been down, on the mountains, soaking them pink.

In my poetry, I write of men who let me down as mountains.

Sickness is always strange. I imagine serotonin, whatever it is you lack, to be metallic, sticky, and somewhat briny. For reasons I cannot yet explain, this reminds me of my father.

You go to New Orleans on your own.

4. The person attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, impulses, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action.

I’m never ready for any season. They always come up sudden like the cold lake my father threw me into. Still, I believe they define me. Do you notice seasons less than me? Do you feel and think less than me?  Both our fathers are kind men. My father was always sick – his sun bleached spine, whiskey lining his mouth like wallpaper. When we talk about what determines where we will move too, you tell me mountains are the most important.

You also tell me that I’ve been to too many places. You don’t hide your jealousy, but I am rewarded by it and triumphant that, for once, I am not the jealous one.

I don’t know who else is sick. But the more I speak of this, the more I hear a similar story that tastes of copper in the teller’s mouth.

One night, I ask you if you would live forever if given the chance. You cannot commit to a decision. I tell you I would live forever, even if I were always alone, because I would get to see every place a person could go.

Plus, despite what we’ve created between us, I am best when I’m alone – when I’m not subjecting any other person to me.

I believe that I trust you and that I trust myself. So what keeps me awake?

What will New Orleans be like for you? For me, it was strawberry beer on a buckled sidewalk and those crosses spray-painted on abandoned houses. I don’t tell what the numbers mean. But I was always protecting, wasn’t I? Ever the blue tarp over your body, the bully in disguise, the hand shielding your eyes from the glare of the moon.

Please also let me teach you that there are no absolutes – as you approach them, they will move and diminish like that mountain in the distance that we are driving toward.

5. The person recognizes that the obsessional thoughts, impulses, or images are a product of his or her own mind (not imposed from without as in thought insertion).

Since this happened, I now see movement out of the corners of my vision – shapes, man or animals or a blend of the two, disappearing out of view. This happens especially through the windows of our cabin that look out into the spruce filled yard. This happens when you are away or asleep or not looking. But no, when I think about it, this started happening long before I knew you.

If what I write is not worthwhile to anyone, let the meaning making still be an event in my history. Let emotions always be events.

I dream about a man with the head of a bear.  He licks my hands.

When I try to think of metaphors to sum this up, to be able to tell it to others, I usually come up with flat, pale gray or green metaphors with mouths gaping for air.  But today I burnt myself badly on the steam when I opened the kettle I was warming for tea, and I thought yes, it was a bit like that.

I imagine us moving to Prague or working on an organic farm in Australia. You tell me you want a year by a beach. After a winter like this, I know.

It was invisible until I told it to others. Then it was misunderstood.

And when you say I’ve been to too many places, you should mean I’ve fucked too many people. As if that is the only thing.

Does the novelty wear off? You get better and I write a poem about how love can be boring.

There are parts of this that I still cannot write, sharp nouns that I can’t even list here.

Our second summer together, we drive to Seward. As we enter the Kenai Peninsula, we spot a porcupine on the side of the road and, like everything else I’ve come up against in this state, it is much larger than I thought it would be.

Psychosis is one word we still do not understand. I put it in a box. I put the box on a shelf.

During one session, you tell your counselor more about us. You start to cry and have trouble speaking. She asks, “Why do you cry when you talk about being loved?” And you tell her, “I never thought anyone would care for me like this. I never thought I deserved it.”

What if we end up in another winter town?

To wander through another, that is the best adventure.

And no, the novelty does not wear off. If we hadn’t gone through this, we would not be.  I tell myself over and over: I will be gentle with him, I will be gentle with him. 

And I will be gentle with myself.

On the drive to Seward, we see several cars and campers pulled over on the side of the road.  You stop and not fifteen feet from my passenger window are two grizzly cubs moving their mouths around roots.  I cry watching them in awe, but the cubs do not look up at any of us.


SCARANOphotoCaitlin Scarano is originally from southern Virginia but now lives in interior Alaska, where she is a poet in the University of Alaska Fairbanks MFA program and editor-in-chief of Permafrost. She is the recent winner of the Poet’s Billow 2013 Pangaea Prize.


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