(N. Scott Momaday's grandmother shared a Kiowa Creation Myth. They came one by one out of a hollow log and called themselves Kwuda, "coming out.")
Forty years ago, when I was entering my thirties, caught up in the free-fall terror of an unexpected divorce and unexpected solitude, I reckoned that it shouldn’t be that hard to turn the bare bones of a 12'x12' cabin, on twenty-eight acres of northwest Arkansas woods, into a refuge, a home, a safe nest where I could reshape the next part of my life.
Why couldn’t I do it all by myself without electricity, telephone, or experience? I had earned a degree in Zoology; escaped a talented, overbearing, and alcoholic mother in Texas; lost a clever, domineering husband; and bailed out of a thrilling music career in London. So how bad could it be? Really.
I was determined that no one should know where I was or the details of my predicament. During calm moments my rationalization spoke: “Haven’t you always found yourself in the middle of, or on the fringes of, astounding events and people? Lean into the changes, girl.”
When panic reigned, I’d hear the internal voice whining, “Your history reveals notably brilliant as well as absurd choices. How do you know which kind this one is?”
Today, forty years on, I live in a different patch of Arkansas woods with a brilliant and loving man, Arthur. He understands when I get that dreamy look—when I swim with my memories. I’ve seen him soak in the joy as he watches me spin soft alpaca wool into yarn, sing on festival stages, walk awestruck in the rainforests of Borneo and Ecuador, or chew my lower lip as I puzzle together the loose threads of a short story. A few yards from our home, nestled in the woods, I have a tiny weaver’s shed. This newest Kwuda cabin I did not build.
The urge to do carpentry resurfaces now and then from the calmer waters of this life shared with Arthur. When I pick up a hammer and start measuring the walls, he will patiently ask, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Crow?”
My honest reply echoes the challenges of the first Kwuda cabin all those years ago. “Hell, no, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know how I want it to come out. I know how I want it to feel when I am there.”
While working on the first cabin, located a few miles south of Winslow, Arkansas, I named the first completed interior wall “Band-Aid Wall.” It took hundreds of pine board scraps, carefully measured and cut. The wall was less than eleven feet long and ten feet high. As I nailed in the recycled tongue-and-groove boards at appropriately artistic angles, I left bloody fingerprints on the edges of every board. The gables were covered with flapping sheet plastic. Puffy pink insulation was not stapled between the studs. Nothing kept the bitter cold away. I didn’t realize that I couldn’t feel my fingers until I saw patches of smeared blood on my wall. Boxes of Band-Aids saved me from calling it the “Bloody Wall.”
It’s easy for me to laugh about that wall now. The line between hope and despair is paper-thin when your world is upside down. With a numbed heart and fingertips, I remember the shock of seeing the blood. For a heartbeat my breath sucked in, and I thought I was going to puke. I turned as clammy and afraid as I’d been on an August day in college, looking out of the second floor of the UT Austin Biology building. There were bloodstains smeared in different patterns on the concrete and grass as people crawled—or were pulled—to safety. I and my classmates went to the far side of the building, opposite the tower, to prevent whoever was shooting a clean shot at us through the windows.
“Get down. You are too close. It’s not safe. Someone’s shooting,” we shouted at people who didn’t yet know they were in the middle of a horrific event. It lasted an hour and a half, wounding forty-three and killing thirteen.
One guy standing by a big live oak held a camera and waved us off as if he knew what he was doing. A bullet hit him like a Looney Tunes episode. Elmer J. Fudd dropped that wabbit in silence, and only then did the eerie sound of the shot echo past us. That’s when I lost my lunch, puking on the windowsill, floor, and my shoes. I never did learn who the young man by the oak was or if he survived. The shooter up in the tower was a student named Charles Whitman, who had lost his tether to reality. And those of us on campus gained a surrealistic sense of clarity and confusion.
The image of blood pointed back to San Francisco, where I joined thousands of young people who willingly relinquished their thin tethers to reality. It was called the “Summer of Love.” We were a force opposite the apparent random violence of those like Charles Whitman. It was a gathering of hippies, disenfranchised youth, seekers, and adventuresome fools who embraced loving all of life. One afternoon in Golden Gate Park, I joyously watched my blood cells swimming like little fishes inside my hands and fingers. Taking LSD was a fool’s adventure. When I watched a businessman’s face melt like dripping plastic, I ran to him.
“Oh, man. That melting thing with your face is amazing. Doesn’t it hurt? Can I do anything to help you?” He had no idea what I was talking about. I was seeing it with my own eyes. Surrealism and clarity were waltzing again.
Hammering nails became a noble task at Kwuda cabin. I slept in a sleeping bag wrapped in all the warm clothes I could find. The smoke from burning rotted logs choked me. I had the woodsy sense of a domesticated duck, a bewildered and determined city girl. I knew how I wanted it to come out, how I wanted it to feel. The blood smudges on “Band-Aid Wall” became my badge of courage. I wanted a safe, honest, inspiring and beautiful home, rather than a 10'x12' memorial to ineptitude, inadequacy, fears, and a failed marriage.