Here are some things I want you to know about me:
1) I do not like it when people say to “keep positive!” when bad things happen or are happening. I think this phrase is about as helpful as someone looking at a fatal wound and loudly telling the wounded “You should really go to the doctor!”
2) I have, as most are having or have had, a lot of elements present in my rich, full, wonderful life that would cause many people to not know what else to say but “uh...keep...positive?” That’s fine. It’s a default phrase of comfort and we are encouraged to share default phrases of comfort with one another when we a)care and don’t know what the hell else to say b) don’t care and don’t know what else to say.
3) C) What I really don’t like is when people start believing the default phrase of comfort and feel like they are doing something bitterly wrong by not following the edict of the phrase “KEEP POSITIVE!” You can keep your head on straight without keeping blisteringly, impossibly, brightly positive. The only people I tolerate the latter kind of positivity from are very young pop stars or survivors of body-wrenching diseases who have found new freedom in wearing silk caftans and rubies to brunch. At midnight.
4) I grew up on the final, forest-preserved fringe of the Chicago Southland, before it turns into farmland or Car-and-Coach-Bag-Selling Metropoli, about twenty miles southwestish of where we are now, where the main roads are lined with trees and the dead. The only thing more prevalent than tiny split-levels and cemeteries in my hometown are woods, so. This is my inherent visual default metaphor. Little Red Riding Hood is my fairy tale. Woods tempt and terrify me, as they likely do us all.
5) When I was a youngin, I read a book about making it out of the woods that stuck close with me. If you haven’t read it, I’m going to ruin it for you, but in the best way because if you haven’t read it by now, you never will. Sorry.
6) I really want to call the book Girl Hatchet. This is not to confuse it with Boy Hatchet. Boy Hatchet is really called “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen. Girl Hatchet is really called “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” and it’s by Stephen King. Girl Hatchet and Boy Hatchet are both stories about survival, in the face of immense physical and emotional danger.
In Boy Hatchet, a 13-year-old boy has to figure out how to survive with naught but a hatchet his mom gave him and his wits, after the pilot of the little Cessna he’s on dies of a heart attack. The boy is lost in the woods of New York or Canada, where he crash-lands the plane into a lake, and figures out how to use his trusty hatchet to kill a bunch of woodland creatures and make fire, all while dealing with the divorce–and his knowledge of his mom’s secret affair. Tough break, thinking about your mom being an adult who has different drives/depths/darkness than maybe she ever expected, while you have to kill slugs to survive. But, spoilers, the kid lives at least long enough for two more survival books to be written about him.
In Girl Hatchet, what I will biasedly also refer to as the Hatchet of my Heart, a nine-year-old girl is traveling with her mom and brother after their parents’ recent divorce in the woods of Maine. The girl’s brother is hotly angry about the divorce, and can’t stop arguing with their mother about it. Our girl hangs back to avoid jumping into the fray, takes a quick pee off the beaten path, before promptly sliding down a ravine to her possible doom. Who can’t relate?
She is lost in the woods for 9 days, with her Walkman and her trashy snacks. Her hatchet, so to speak, is her clear head, and her imagination. When the going gets really tough for our girl, she imagines she is being watched over by none other than her crush and sports idol, Tom Gordon, a real baseball player who played for the Red Sox at the time the book came out.
By hallucinating the dreamwatcher “Flash” Gordon, and being smart about divvying up her last rations of Twinkies and Surge and calling on her memory of a Little House on the Prairie book to follow a water source to civilization, our girl might just survive...until, of course, she either hallucinates or realizes she is being hunted by either a bear OR something called the God of the Lost, a creature built of bugs and death and craven hunger for humans wracked with fear. The logic of the God of the Lost follows that, the more scared someone is, the tastier they are.
Our girl does, spoilers, make it through, but only by fully accepting what she cannot, logically, accept: that the world is not only just dark and full of shadows, but it is also full of her mom and brother, real and imaginary Tom Gordon, a rescue team that may or may not give up the search for her at the exact moment she expires, and real and phantasmagoric killer bears.
She acknowledges the truth of this, the great duality of all things, and ultimately, smacks the darker of those things out to eat her up, dead between the eyes with a Walkman she pitches like a baseball.
She closes her game strong not by “keeping positive,” but by keeping her wits about her, and her eyes clear, even though she’s scared shitless and, at this point, fresh out of Twinkies and Surge.
Once she’s dealt with the God of the Lost-slash-standard-issue-actual bear, she’s also sort of rescued by a passing hunter, who doesn’t quite believe his eyes. In a wikipedia article I hastily read while writing this, since I read this book once in 8th grade and remembered everything but the order of the ending, that “even though the hunter helped her, she knew she earned her rescue.”
I wish our default phrase of comfort could be “you will earn your rescue” instead of “keep positive.”
I wish our default response to people in trouble, to people breaking down due to their own design or that of good ol’ Disease or Life or Fate, would not just be, solely, “sorrrrry” or “yikes” or “focus on the good things.” In addition to those, or instead of that and “just have faith” “trust” etc” that we could add to the comfort phrase stable the following, and really believe what we say:
I hope you are clocking your surroundings.
I hope you’re charting your responses.
I hope you’re taking stock of your supplies, and that if you’re pinned under a tree, you are using your mind and my mind and everyone around you’s mind to figure out how to Macgyver the last of them into a crude pulley system to free yourself, or at least the part of yourself that needs freeing most immediately.
I hope you’re numbering your strengths.
I hope your Walkman is charged.
I hope you’re swinging your hatchet. Or your Twinkie. Or your Game Boy. Whatever it is that keeps you sharp, I hope it’s sharpening you.
I hope you’re picturing your Tom Gordon by your side.
I hope you know the only way out is through–if you make it out at all.
I hope you make it out.
I hope you close the game strong.
7) I hope you earn your rescue.