I’m driving down the mountain to Big Bear Lake in the blue light of dawn. As I round a bend, I meet four coyotes.
I’ve never seen a pack of coyotes before. They typically hunt and travel alone, and an estimated one-half of coyotes are completely solitary with no pack at all. The four canines in the middle of the road are not fazed by my oncoming Suzuki. I slow down.
They leisurely move to the side of the road. One coyote climbs the porch steps of a nearby house, as if, like me, she wants a better look.
We lock eyes and I pass slowly. We study each other.
Before I go further, let me offer context:
I’m taking a much-craved break in Big Bear to refill the creative well. I drove up from LA to stay in my sister’s mountain house. The day I arrived, months of tension in my neck, traps, and lower back eased, my body expressing gratitude the only way it knows how. Ah, rest. Thank you.
Last year, I left a full-time job in marketing to focus more time on creative writing, blogging, and teaching my own online workshops.
I held that job for five years, and leaving the security of a nine-to-five to “go it alone” was more terrifying than exhilarating.
If our creative work is anything more than a hobby, we must embrace marketing, analytics, networking, pitching—all the business practices that typically make artists cringe. As much as we resist it, professional writers and artists are entrepreneurs.
And entrepreneurship is petrifying.
That’s not hyperbole. Once you’re past the thrilling “This is a great idea!” phase, the Everest of to-do items can freeze you faster than a gorgon’s gaze. One goof-up on social media or passive-aggressive comment can paralyze you for months.
Entrepreneurship, including creative entrepreneurship, takes an enormous psychological toll.
Entrepreneurs experience markedly more anxiety than employees. And in my experience, sharing writing and videos on social media, making sales calls to enroll students into my workshop, setting up a payment system—it dredged up every self-doubt, insecurity, and limiting belief I had.
The vulnerability of entrepreneurship launched my subconscious into extreme survival mode. Every atom in my body screamed:
No! Stop this!
You’re making a mistake!
You’re a huge fraud!
You’re not safe! Go back to a day job where no one knows your name. It’s safer there!
Stop talking! Stop writing! Shut up-shut up-shut up-shut up-SHUT UUUUP!!
The fear and my body’s reaction was unprecedented. I’ve struggled with anxiety all of my adult life, but this was different. I didn’t know if I’d survive.
As a theatre minor in college and a former English teacher, I had no trouble public speaking or appearing on camera. Now that it was time to share my own work and market my own classes, my throat closed up.
It’s not that creative entrepreneurship is more dangerous than other paths in life. It’s the sensation of fear that cripples you. In an inferno, you succumb to smoke inhalation, not the fire itself.
So I head to Big Bear to breathe. I meditate, soak in the hot tub, read my favorite writer (Brian Doyle), and do what we writers do best—think, reflect, ruminate.
On the second day of my retreat, I wake before sunrise to hike around Big Bear Lake with my dog Nala. This is when I meet the four coyotes.
I can’t take my eyes off the female coyote on the porch steps, and her eyes are on me.
She looks like a German shepherd, Aussie, blue heeler mix. Except for the eyes–—wild, wise, duplicitous.
Coyotes are often stereotyped as the podunk, trash-digging cousins of the canine family. Scavengers. Tricksters. Weaker and less regal than wolves. Less svelte than foxes. More selfish than dogs. Yet, this one stares down at me from the porch, and I’m struck by her wild majesty.
Her gaze stays with me throughout my hike. Throughout the day.
That night I dream of a coyote.
She’s coming for my dog Nala. Every time she lunges, I throw Nala out of the way and wrestle for our lives.
This goes on and on—as dreams do—until I get my hands around her neck. I squeeze and squeeze until she goes limp.
The coyote’s not dead, only injured. I look in her eyes. It’s then I realize she wasn’t coming for Nala. She wasn’t coming for my throat or life.
She had a message. With each lunge, she was trying to tell me something important. And I strangled her.
I lift her exhausted body and try to run for help. An emergency vet? A neighbor? I hold her to my chest, the message unreceived, and wake up.
At night in Big Bear, I hear the coyotes yipping and yelling while the sun goes down. They sound possessed and violent. After my dream and encounter with the pack on the road, their evening calls are both frightening and soothing.
I return to LA and work. A few days later, I dream of hiking in the desert. The path is rocky and dusty. Walking downhill, it’s hard to keep my footing, and I skid on the gravel.
The path gets steeper. I see a hole a few yards ahead, and I intuitively know there’s a rattlesnake inside.
I try to avoid the hole but end up skidding down the path, directly into the snake’s den. The rattler springs and bites my neck—hard. There’s no surviving this, I think. A snake-bite to the neck is not something you survive.
The snake retreats. I hold my hands over my neck and scream and scream and scream. There are mere seconds until my throat closes completely. So I simply scream.
While I yell, a glass dome descends from above, trapping me in the desert with the snake. I bang my fists on the glass and continue to scream. Somehow, my throat hasn’t reacted to the snake venom, but now I’m really screwed. All I have is a scream.
I wake up gasping for air.
In my research on female entrepreneurship, fear, and mental health, I learn about a concept called the Witch Wound.
The Witch Wound is psychic trauma passed on from witches, but more generally, healing and creative women, whose practices and lives were and are not acceptable within patriarchy.
If women danced, they burned. If women practiced midwifery, they burned. If they mixed benign herbal tinctures for colds or sleep, they burned. If they wrote poetry or tapped into feminine intuition, they burned.
It’s the genetic trauma women carry due to centuries of oppression that made it unsafe to claim feminine power or dissent. Until very recently, it was extremely dangerous for anyone other than white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, men to speak their minds or claim power—and it remains dangerous in many contexts.
(I’d like to note here that the term “Witch Wound” draws from a western context of speaking about transgenerational trauma. Many cultures and people have their own language and metaphors for speaking about genetic trauma, and this term fits best for my personal history.)
Grandmothers and great-grandmothers risked death by fire, hanging, beating, or stoning for embracing intuition, intellect, or healing abilities. New research tells us that ancestral trauma can be passed down through genetics—coded into our DNA—and manifest in our own behavior and emotions.
Although our opportunities for expression are far greater now than even 30 years ago (in certain parts of the world and for certain people privileged with access), the transgenerational trauma of stonings, burnings, beatings, and hangings are alive in many women’s bodies.
Of course my throat is closing. Of course my body is resisting. Of course I wake from nightmares clutching my neck. Vulnerability once meant death.
And I’m dreaming of predators.
A few nights after the snake, a tiger and a mountain lion spring at me from across a pool. Instead of scream or wrestle, I make myself huge. I spread my arms and legs wide—like you’re told to do when a black bear charges—and I rage.
I write the dreams down. While frightening, the predators are not the malevolent symbols I’d expect them to be.
The coyote was not trying to kill Nala or me. The snake’s venom didn’t close my throat. The cats never sunk their claws into my flesh.
On the contrary, all four predators moved me to action. I sought help. I raged against a glass cage. I grew to the strongest, most fearsome version of myself.
In many cultures and faiths across the world, visions of animals visit artists, clergy, and healers as signs. It is said that Francis of Assisi calmed a wolf that was tormenting the people of Gubbio. He said to the wolf, “The people will harm you no more and you must no longer harm them. All past crimes are to be forgiven.”
The message and sign for me—and all who’ve choked back their wounded voices:
Scream, roar, rage, pray, laugh, yip, yell.
Open your throat and sing.
Renee Long is a writer, teacher, and novice scuba diver in San Diego, California. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and was a finalist for the Cossack Review 2017 October Poetry Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her work can be found in Crazyhorse, Rock and Sling, Tiger’s Eye: A Journal of Poetry, The Ruminate Blog, and elsewhere. Renee's blog, LitHabits for Life, explores the connections between writing routine, wellness, and lifestyle habits. Connect with @hayreneenay on Twitter and Instagram or on her website, reneelongwrites.com.
Up next, I Used to Love You.
Photo by Bruce Christianson on Unsplash
Thank you for reading, Kathleen. I’m honored the piece resonated with you. 💖
I have often — ruminated — on my ancestral background, especially that of the women. Some of my ancestors were in Massachusetts at the time of the Salem trials, and I have long connected some of my fears to that of women in that area. Thank you for sharing this journey and the recognition that we know and remember far more than what is conscious in our minds.
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February 01, 2020
Loved this piece so much. It rings so true to me as I often have dreams that help me work out my waking life. So glad you were able to gain insight to your fears and share your experience and advice with us.