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They Are Not Unicorns

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Beth Anstandig

Come down to earth! Get your head out of your ass!
Get your head out of the clouds! Stop mooning around!
Pay attention. Get to work on time.
Time and tide that wait for no man willingly
Pause for the bare-armed girl brushing her hair
In a brown pickup truck on a summer evening.

–Jim Harrison

Last week my greatest literary hero, Jim Harrison, passed away. He died while writing a poem. Really, they found his cold dead body sitting at his desk with a pen in his hand. I was oddly pleased this detail was included in the press, as it would have made Jim smile his ragged, crooked smile, knowing people were willing to write about his corpse. This is how he taught me to be in the world and to write about it: you go bravely and nakedly into the gritty, walk through the sludge of the earth, the stink of yourself, and there, right there in the midst of what we refuse to sanitize, is where we are most alive.

I was eighteen years old when I discovered Jim Harrison’s writing. I was in that liminal stage of my own development during which awareness of myself was like a lighthouse beam, periodic glimpses of myself in a vast ocean of darkness. I can see now what I was attracted to, what spoke to me, what called to me, what kept me wanting more. He insisted that you go face to face with the human animal, the primitiveness of ourselves that we veil in culture and language and social norms, the spoken and unspoken rules of business meetings, dinner parties, and congenial passings on the street. He shined spotlights on the wolves in us, the savage beast still lurking in our DNA, the delicious impulses pounding like a second pulse we have forgotten to listen to or look for.

So what did my eighteen year old self read and love? What did she need? What did she get and then want more of?

Frankly, I think she was tired of the bullshit. Harrison wrote, “The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.” Fairly early on I was concerned about this. I grew up in “the house of nonsense,” and by that I mean there was “no sense” to be found. It still amazes me how humans will make life choices that run so shockingly against the grain of survival. We don’t even dare to call it insanity. We all co-sign the crazy and look the other way.  And when we do it over and over again, it ruins lives. We may not realize it until it’s too late, but we live these half lives with a spiritual and emotional loneliness that I still can’t believe doesn’t kill us. Maybe it does…

I gravitated to the world of animals and found stability there. I found a world that made sense in its simplicity. So I stayed. It became harder and harder for me to trust the world of humans, which created what seemed like an expanding canyon between me and other people. Jim Harrison’s voice, his honesty, and authenticity, invited me to be animal enough that I could consider tolerating being human. It’s not a riddle, I promise.

When I started reading Harrison, I realized I trusted his writing. I trusted him. I trusted the animal in his writing voice. Harrison’s fictional characters don’t hold back. They don’t edit. They’re earthy and dirty. They’re raunchy and dripping with desire and instinct. His poetry has the same quality. He looks the world right in the eye and doesn’t blink. He asks the painful questions and insists we sit without answers. Harrison led me back to trusting my humanity by embracing my human animal. The shame and judgement we have about our animal nature overrides an immense richness and wisdom lying dormant within us. We bow to the gods of thought and have forgotten what we are missing. An animal like Jim Harrison reminds us. He reminded me. And the allowance for that powerful and primitive part of me to wake up and lead the way may very well have saved my life.

The same newspaper that reported Harrison’s death, featured a story about an archeological finding of a 29,000 year old fossil referred to as “the Siberian unicorn.” They believe that this creature was the source of the mythological unicorn, as the fossils indicate it lived among humans. Here’s the best part: “Unfortunately, despite its sizeable horn, the “Siberian unicorn” looked more like a rhinoceros than the mythical creature its nickname refers to. It was about 6 feet tall, 15 feet long, and weighed about 9,000 pounds, making it more comparable to a woolly mammoth than a horse.” We couldn’t just let it be. We had to tinker with it. We call it creativity and art, but sometimes it’s just a perversion of the exquisiteness of reality. No long flowing mane. No magical horn. No rainbows. Just a sturdy beast with giant feet stomping its way around the earth.

I witness this kind of projection often in our work with horses and people. There’s a temptation to call it magic, to see it as mystical. People refer to it as horse whispering and essentially create a unicorn experience. When we look for unicorns, we miss the point. They aren’t unicorns. They are horses. And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it disrespectful to slap human constructed imaginings onto them? It seems to me that when we do this, we get even further away from the lost mammal within us. Being with horses wakes up our animal bodies. If we spin the story or twist it or create the nonsense like Jim Harrison calls it, we cloud the lesson, distort the truth, and keep ourselves in the dark. With our eyes wide open to the mammalian mess of it all, we may just be more authentic. And maybe that’s more than enough.

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