Dear Governor Ducey,
When we were fly fishing on the Fremont, the road up to the reservoir had just been opened after winter. We saw one truck on the way to Johnson’s Reservoir—a guy fishing in Mill’s reservoir. Otherwise, we were fifteen miles from the nearest town where the population was maybe 100 people and they were all in church anyway. Snow peeled back from the hills. The ice on Mill’s reservoir floated on top of the water, waving goodbye from the banks, at least for the warm day, if not for the rest of the year. As Max and I stood by ourselves along the Fremont river, I kept my ears out for rustling in the trees. For bears and mountain lions. I consoled myself by realizing, this is Utah. This is southern Utah were the ranchers see cougars as enemy and kill any cougar they find. I’m not sure if “console” is the right word. If you’re going to be fishing, to predate, perhaps you too should find yourself on the other end, sometimes. At least know the feeling of being on your toes. Skin prickling. Ears sharp. To have the confidence you are never prey is a kind of numbification—colder than the river into which we waded to try to find the fish that are smarter than us or our fishing poles. The fish know fear. They know to hide out in river under the trees where our fishing line will get caught until we go home.
I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book, Flight Behavior. It’s OK. Not as good as her other books. But I’m envious. You can feel she didn’t feel the anguish of wandering, is this how I should write this? Is this the way the plot should go? Should I linger longer on the clothes Dellarobia wears? Should I consider the food she eats? Have I said what I wanted to about how much she believes in God? I’m not saying Kingsolver didn’t have these questions—just that she didn’t feel anguish about them. Mistake or not, she charged right through. It’s something success awards—the sense that you can answer your own questions and then move on.
I’m thinking about the difference between fear and anguish. Fear comes from the known. You know there are cougars in your midst. Keep your eye out. You know there are humans looking to lure you with their plastic flies. Keep your eye out. Fear is useful. Sometimes, fears are overstated—the likelihood of a cougar attack is almost zero, even almost zero that a cougar will attack your livestock, but still, fear is resolvable. You can kill all the cougars or you can educate yourself to realize the cougars won’t really destroy you or your livelihood. Obviously, one is more ecologically sound. One will probably lead to the end of the world. But still. You can make the fear stop.
Anguish is different. Anguish is circular. Anguish is loss and unstaunchable wound. When I have a little writing success, I am able to stop worrying detrimentally. I can worry productively. Yes, this has a little too much description of my main character’s nose hairs. No, it is OK this sentence is purely unsubstantiated. You can substantiate later! Yes, linger on the pattern of butterfly wings! Yes, let the squirrel be a metaphor for the fast food restaurant. You’ve done it before. It’s going to be OK.
When I see what has happened with the budget cuts—the way they were passed in the middle of the night, with no public input, with “bipartisanship” bought for 1.2 million dollars in road aid, it is not government I fear. If I feared it, I would still be living in a democracy where I could fight it or wait it out or build against it. But instead, it is anguish. The anguish of not knowing how much worse it could get or how, with the infusion of money from corporations and foundations run by the Koch brothers, any one with any integrity can run for office. The anguish of thinking, I live here and I vow to keep working to change things to make them better but spending the night awake wondering how. That’s anguish’s problem. Sentences begin with how and end with how.
Doubt leads to weak writing. It is bad citizenship too. Doubt makes you stop writing. It makes you stop voting. Sometimes it makes you quit. If I just had one sign from you, that you hear that I’m worried about not just me and my job but my friends and my colleagues’ jobs and my students and future students and the future’s future. But you can’t give me that, because that might staunch my anguish. And, if my anguish were staunched, it would turn to fear. And fear is manageable. We can fight what we know. We would know that sometimes you are predator, but sometimes prey. No wonder you hate education. With that kind of knowledge, maybe we could endanger something truly dangerous.