When I was born in Detroit, in the late 1970s, it was already a rusting, poured out town. By the time I was ready to start school, we had moved to the affordable edge of a nearby suburb. Most of the neighborhoods on our end of town were predictable grids of brick ranches. They had identical floor plans, flat green lawns, and chain link fences. But ours wasn’t one of those houses, and it wasn’t in one of those neighborhoods. Our house was on a quarter acre lot. Our street was a dead end, and where the pavement stopped a cement block wall held back a towering engine factory, painted a few shades darker than a summer-blue sky, so that even when you squinted it was always there.
Our lot was undeveloped. Half dirt, half tangle of woods. We were only three doors down from the factory, but in the center of those trees the rumble of trucks and shouts of workers were a world away. There were pheasants and ducks, skunks and possums, crawfish, snakes, and slugs. There were cardinals and robins, sparrows and crows, blue jays and woodpeckers. There were fat, brown squirrels nearly as big as cats. And rabbits. So many rabbits. Quick-brown and downy, with white cotton tails that turned up when you got too close and they bolted.
My brother and I, three and six at the time, were warned to approach wild things with caution. They were dirty and dangerous. They could injure us. That fear took root in my mind, grew alongside and into my curiosity, so that I wanted nothing more than to touch wildness, to get my hands on anything it would let me reach.
Maybe for this to make sense, I need to tell you something of our family. Or maybe I don’t. Because maybe you were taught the same things I was: that the world was a place to conquer. That we should keep our hands to ourselves. That to suffer in silence was the definition of strength. That to survive we needed to harden our softness. That wildness was messy, that nature was messy, that feelings hurt, that we should fear the mess and avoid the pain and no,
I’m not talking about rabbits, anymore.
Maybe for this to make sense I need to tell you that I spent my childhood, and adolescence, and early twenties, sure that there was something wrong with me, because my insides roiled—love, desire, revulsion, compulsion. Terror, joy, mystery. Everything was so beautiful! And so fucked up! Did other people know this? I wanted to blast it all out to the universe. But no one else I knew was, so I kept quiet.
Maybe for this to make sense I need to tell you about my mother’s voice, which was always soft, even when it shouldn’t have been. Maybe I need to tell you about my father, whose rage exploded and then almost as abruptly disappeared without a trace.
Maybe I need to tell you about my brother, who was the wildest of us all. Who pushed it all down so deep I forgot it was there. Who tried. Who carried the load—who held it all in until he couldn’t. Who took his own life.
But maybe I don’t. Maybe your family was tight and silent. Maybe you, too, collected wildness in friendships and music and books. Maybe you walked edges, and struggled to keep your balance.
Maybe you fell more than once.
Maybe you, just like my brother and I, kept walking back into those woods. Coming out each time splattered with mud, your hands full of wild berries that your mother wouldn’t let you eat.
I have a winter memory of myself alone in our backyard. Crunch of snow. Clouds of breath. And a rabbit. Very still. I walked toward her, slowly, and she didn’t move.
The slick black bead of her eye locked on mine.
Her whiskers trembled.
Her tiny chest rose and fell.
And then I was there. Next to her. Crouching in the snow. I reached out and touched her side, sunk my hand into the unguarded spot behind her ribcage. For a second I could swear I felt the staccato humming of her heart.
Then she turned and ran.
More than thirty years have passed, and I no longer know whether this memory is true. By which I mean whether it really happened, or whether I just needed to believe, even then, that it was possible to move forward into fear. Into uncertainty. To press right into the soft things I wasn’t supposed to.
To touch something wild.