Introduction: Most all of you have a sense of who Kiva is from her emotive and illustrative writings, her personality and perspectives… but she’s not always been all that she seems, nor all that she truly is and can be, and some of us recognized – even before she did – the precious vulnerability and resilient innocence alternately frolicking and hiding beneath her confident Bear-like posture. From the time she was a hurt young child, she has been trying to both understand and heal her self through the process of writing. In a way, she has been attempting for over two decades to write the following piece, in her most authentic voice, and now it is done. And now she is able to be wholly and openly her true self for the very first time! This two-part post calls upon us neither to pity her for any suffering, nor exalt her for her arduous recovery of her true nature, but to find in her example the inspiration to be as honest in our own self explorations, as courageous about embodying and sharing who we really are, and as determined to fulfill a role that makes use of all the crap and magic, hurt and healing to help others.
-Jesse Wolf Hardin Cacomixtle: A Chimera’s Story of Transformation, Rebirth, and Becoming Whole by Kiva Rose (“Ringtail”!) Hardin
Part I “I will tell you something about stories. They aren’t just entertainment. They are all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.”
- Leslie Marmon Silko
In the quiet of late evening, the red spotted toads trill their mating songs by the river while the Poor-Wills pick up the chorus, and several species of Owls call down into the canyon from their treetop perches. Hooves can be heard clattering against the stones as Mule Deer make their way down from the mountains looking for sweeter grass under the waning moon. And in the canopy of Evergreen Oak growing from the canyon wall, a smaller creature may be seen running head-first down a tall tree trunk. On silent paws, she moves through the understory of Cholla cactus and Redroot with her large fox-like ears twitching, taking in the sounds of her home. Up the rock face she leaps, purposefully sniffing out favorite berries and the occasional scorpion for a snack on her way. Once to her favorite spot on the cliff, she spreads herself out on her belly, a long black and white banded tail waving behind her as she rests on the cool stone. With a single wild gooseberry between her white paws, she sings out to the night, plaintive barks interspersed with small chirps that could easily evoke a bird if you didn’t catch site of the little animal that lays on the cliff singing to the crescent moon. Even if you did catch a glimpse, you might still wonder just what she was – perhaps a desert chimera made up of fox, cat, coon, squirrel, and mink.
Desert Chimera: The Medicine of Wholeness
“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is… a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent…”
Nestled high in the arms of a Juniper tree – its shreddy bark warm under my bare feet as I lean back against the branch, gazing out into the canyon’s brilliant azul sky through the blue-green foliage – I feel more at home than almost anywhere else. The red and black basalt of the steep arroyo glitter with inset quartz below me, and I can smell the butterscotch sweet scent of the Ponderosas Pines around me. Errant breezes bring the fragrance of the sacred sage, Estafiate, from the base of the mountains. The occasional blue-bellied lizard scurries past me on the branch, and chipmunks chide me from neighboring trees.
From here, I can watch the sinuous movement of the river in the canyon bottom, and a herd of Rocky Mountain Elk wanders down from the ridges to drink alongside a small band of White-Nosed Coatis that are nosing around near Prickly Pear growing from a stony outcrop. I continue watching them over my shoulder as I shimmy down the tree trunk and run the rock ledge to get a closer look at this gathering of critters by the water. Always, even at my most withdrawn and fearful, my curiosity has overwhelmed all my reservations to bring me closer to whatever holds my interest. While I would have denied it in favor of seeming more detached for many years, my foundational nature has always been defined by my curiosity and love of the close-up. I like nothing better than being a little girl in the top of the tree, examining the colorful lichens and tiny mushrooms growing from the bark.
I’ve known since I first arrived in the canyon that this place, in all its brilliant diversity and ancient beauty, was a huge part of myself and my identity that had been missing before I found my long way home. Arriving here, even with the difficulty and sometimes painful transformation it entailed for me, was a revelation of self-discovery. To realize so much of my spirit was tied to these red rocks, soft silver clay, and sharp-edged obsidian, was to finally see myself in the matrix, the context, I so needed to make any sense of myself.
Even now, when my work leaves me drained, confused, and sometimes hurt, I find my solace and source in the open arms of the land. Not everyone sees these Cholla spines and Lycium thorns as welcoming, but their fierceness and sharp edges have taught me how to better open to the intense and often challenging nature of this place. The opening has been slow for me, incremental steps toward my own tender inner self that I’ve spent most of my life trying to shut down and shut out in order to be less vulnerable. Shutting down in order to avoid being hurt by other people was in itself a questionable success, and also served to shut down my senses in many other ways, denying me intimacy with place, as well as people.
The canyon has a particular ability to wake me up, to poke at me gently until I pay attention. For nearly a decade, I’ve spent each day slowly becoming ever more myself, each dusky rose and blood orange colored sunset seeing me stripped just a little further down to the raw core at the center of me. Each layer lost changes the image in the mirror a little bit more, brings my face into slightly better focus. A more comfortable place would have likely allowed me to slip into a comfortable complacency instead of prodding me into continuous growth.
By the time I reach the water, scrambling over boulders and jumping down the small drop-off near the water, the elk have moved on and the Coatis have wandered further downriver in search of more insects and berries. I watch the Crawdads gliding below the surface of the water and lean over to get a closer look at a certain sparkly fish flitting in the current. And then I see my own face. I’m taken by surprise to see the laughing, child-like expression with wide, wondering eyes reflected back at me rather than the wary, contained woman I’ve been since my early teens. Instead of the swiping paw and intimidating largeness of the bear I’ve embraced for the last decade, I see the mischievous grin and small form of a Ringtail Cat.
As soon as I could admit this transformation to myself, Ringtails started showing up – literally – at my door. More than once on recent nights, we’ve heard the distinctly Ringtail barks and chatterings just outside the cabin. And one night while walking to the outdoor tub, a Ringtail ran along the roof of the water tank next to me, chittering until I shined the flashlight toward it to get a better look, which was greeted with indignant hissing until I shut the light back off. Then one of our resident helpers brought back a small skull from a walk that Wolf and I immediately recognized as a Ringtail with its Procyonid teeth pattern and distinct carnassial teeth, far more developed in a Ringtail than its Coati and Coon cousins, who are less carnivorous than the Ringtail. The skull still had bits of skin and hair clinging to it, and despite its somewhat gamey smell, I couldn’t help but hug it. While Ringtails have certainly been in the canyon all along, their sudden overt presence helped drive home this transition as I shift from self-protection to self-expression.
Nocturnal and shy, Ringtails are often mistaken for something else entirely during one of their rare sightings. With their black and white banded Raccoonish tails, fox-like faces, flexible bodies reminiscent of minks and cats, and sometimes multisyllabic bird-like chirps, it’s no wonder folks can get confused by this elusive little tree-loving creature. Ringtails have often been mistaken for other animals, and even named according to the confusion. Their Aztec-derived name, Cacomixtle, means “Half Mountain Lion” and their scientific name in Latin, Bassariscus astutus, can be translated to “cunning little fox” and even the common name, Ringtail Cat, infers another animal entirely. They’re also sometimes called Miner’s Cats and California Minks, also adding to the general mystery surrounding their origins and nature. Ringtails actually belong to the Procyonidae, along with Raccoons, Kinkajous, Olingos, and Coatis, with the whole family being native to the Americas.
As the pieces of me come together into a whole, I am careful to be unfailingly conscious in the commitments I make and the roles I take on. To be as authentic as possible in how I present myself, the medicine I give, and the stories I tell. This tale is my own, itself a chimera created from what was once lost or broken, grown into the creature I am: storyteller, medicine woman, blazing fire.I’ve often felt similarly, frequently misnamed or misread by those around me, and even by myself, described as bits of pieces rather than any recognizable whole. So many years of not recognizing who I really am have taught me the danger of wearing the mantle or mask of what I am not. While some illusions have purposes, to protect us when we’re vulnerable to help us move through a difficult situation, they also have a tendency to seep into our skin until we can no longer see where we end and they begin. Losing ourselves to any role, whether something as positive as being a caregiver or as blatantly negative as getting stuck in a victim stereotype, can not only limit us, but trap us behind walls of our own making or allowing.
Sparrow in Flight: The Fracturing
“There are parts of me he’ll never know, my wild horses and my river beds,
Many is the time as a kid, that I took refuge atop the red shingled roof of a three-story, abandoned house in Kansas City, watching the neighborhood below in the failing light, listening as playing children were called indoors. I felt safe there, squeezed between the gable and a tree branch growing against the house. I hugged myself with shaking arms, and told myself a story about a girl who could turn into a sparrow and fly away… above the city, and the dirty snake of the Missouri river, above the prairie and into the wild mountains far beyond where the tree spirits would teach her how to weave baskets from willow and gather food from the forest floor.
If there was one term used to describe me most frequently as a child, it was “oversensitive,” with “impatient” and “too curious” as close seconds. There’s no doubt I was thin-skinned and easily hurt, painfully aware of every vocal nuance and veiled look. This oversensitivity often translated into shyness, but not always, as I was more than once found dancing for strangers in the grocery store. Often enough though, it meant that I was fascinated by people and friendly until the moment I felt rejected or pressured, which was the point at which I would collapse into tears and hide under the nearest piece of furniture or up in a tree if possible. No doubt my propensity to take everything to heart endlessly frustrated those around me. It also allowed me to be broken by a world I didn’t understand, and by those who – wounded themselves – did so much harm to me instead of caring for me.“Only do not forget, if I wake up crying
it’s only because in my dream I’m a lost child
hunting through the leaves of the night for your hands….”
It was clear early on, that I’d been born in a place and at a time where my innately dreamy and tender ways would cost me dearly. From the beginning, I saw how sensitivity could result in you being hurt, and how dreaminess could get you labeled as lazy and useless, while incessant activity and ambitions were praised as admirable. A good mind was a useful mind, not like mine… filled to the brim with fairy stories and elaborate fantasy worlds, Pablo Neruda poetry and an endless recitation of fanciful flower names. I wanted to be a dancer, an artist, a poet who knew the language of animals and stones, a wild creature racing from one treetop to the next, a flame flickering with all of the passion of the living world. And I wanted to really feel like I belonged someplace, but my dreams and desires all seemed impossible, festering in a radically conservative and terrifically dysfunctional family in the South, manipulated, controlled and physically abused by a bible spouting, paranoid preacher father, unprotected by a mother living in a constant state of delusion and denial. I don’t remember a second of feeling truly secure as a child, never felt safe being my real self or sharing my inner life, and I came to see my natural ways of being as an endangering weakness and serious liability.
My response to the combination of puritanical moralizing and immoral treatment, was to curl up tightly in a private place within myself. The only way I was able to release my pent up emotions through the vehicle of poetry, carefully crafting my poems in a coded language of symbols that only I could understand in order to protect my most vulnerable feelings from my parents’ prying eyes. I listened to forbidden secular musicians like Tori Amos, letting myself be carried away by the unrestrained emotionality. And I continued my childhood habit of sneaking out my bedroom window at night.
While these respites probably saved me in many ways, I was not whole. I was fractured. I was not myself.
Mask of Roots and Water: A Confession
“Deeply I go down into myself. My god is dark and like a webbing made of a hundred roots that drink in silence.”
By 17, I’d escaped my family but was homeless and exposed. Instead of the red roof of my childhood, I hid out high in trees of the city park instead, my face pressing against the rough bark, taking comfort in the arboreal company as well as in the fact that I was ensconced in the one place that neither the thugs nor the cops would think to look for me! Even with my purple hair and typical all-in-black goth getup, I felt camouflaged enough there to relax, to run my fingers over the self-inflicted wounds that lined my forearms, to breathe slowly and deeply instead of my usual panicked gulps.
Living on the streets, experiencing repeated rapes, ridicule, humiliation, and the kind of captivity no living creature should ever suffer, I felt like a living embodiment of an open wound, barely able to contain the infection of pain and fear that welled beneath my skin. Yet I would survive, even if it meant that I had to deny my born nature, wear a mask of toughness and worldliness and grow a hard veneer around me. I learned to talk fast and hard, to stare down men seeking to intimidate me with a convincing enough fury to back most of them down. To swagger with enough false confidence to keep the women from picking on me. To wear long-sleeved shirts so as not to show the bruises, the cutting, the burn marks. To wear enough makeup that finally all the tear tracks were covered.
The poetry I wrote at that time was rife with imagery of broken glass, an endless torrent of blood and the search for a way through – if not out of – the tangle that my life had become. Woven within were the strands of myth and story I told myself over and over again:
Breathe into me
stir the ashes
and raise me up
I am the Phoenix, a raging
and winged thing
wearing a necklace
of the white skulls
of my murdered child
of all my lovers long dead
of heroin, alcohol, and despair
Losing friends to drugs, suicide, and gang shootings shut me ever more surely into myself. I spent my days cranked on uppers and my evenings in a whiskey bottle, medicating my feelings into brittle submission. The amphetamines made my temper short and my fear less. I had enough energy and could work hard enough that no one would ever call me lazy or dreamy or spacey again. Complete emotional withdrawal followed my being pushed face first down a flight of icy steps and the violent miscarriage that resulted. I told myself I could survive anything, that no man could break me, that I would be okay, if I could just build the walls thick enough, make my facade convincing enough.
“So my steps were slow and my swagger deliberate
And if ever my heart grieved now my body must not confess it
No, she will not fail me, for she expresses the very line –
I’m steady on, eyes dead set on – my hips move left to right”
-Rykarda Parasol, Night on Red River
The masks I hid behind were made to show the world the story of a woman secure in her body and self, spelled against the disease of anorexia, anxiety, and self-hatred that ate at me just beneath the surface. Most of all, I crafted them so as to keep the sensitive little girl both hidden and protected. I figured what I needed least in my life was vulnerability, another way to be hurt, another avenue through which to be betrayed. I was adept at making my masks convincing, playing the jaded sex worker and cynical woman-child well enough to make money at it. I wore these disguises, these prosthetic personalities so often and so deeply, that they affixed to my being and began to grow of their own accord.
Solace, I found only in nature and in the fairy tales I’d clung to since early childhood. I liked to read about the street kids and abuse victims in Charles de Lint’s stories and the ways they stumbled into magic and beauty, and I held the hope in my heart that I could be one of those characters that could turn trauma into powerful art, or at least a wondrously haunting song. I clung to the idea that maybe there was something beautiful and magical in me, too. Such a tiny tendril of story kept me searching through the years for a wild place, for a home, and for a sense of self beyond victimhood.Part II will be posted later this week.