“Kristin Lavransdatter is the tale of a scandalous woman.” – Brad Leithauser, from the Introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter, pg. ix
By Joanna ES Campbell
It begins with a Bettie Page t-shirt.
Dennis and I are at the tail end of our winter beach vacation, sipping cocktails when his smartphone dings. A parishioner isn’t pleased with the appearance of me wearing “pantyhose” and showing “cleavage.” They are worried about what the photo collage might convey on social media since my husband is the Vicar. True, I lightheartedly titled the collage, The Vicar’s Wife Meets Bettie Page.
“I have an idea for an art project,” I had said to Dennis, “and I’ll need your help.”
“You got it,” he exclaimed.
Nature is the place I feel safe to explore identity. To play. To be and breathe.
One scene shows me attempting stereotypical masculinity in a Bettie Page t-shirt, a fortuitous thrift store find. I unbuttoned a plaid shirt to reveal half of Bettie’s black-and-white smiling face and her upward pointing legs. My jeans and cowboy boots fit like they custom ordered my body. I mimicked Clint Eastwood’s face from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
“Do you want close-ups? How much ocean do you want?”
“I just want nature,” I yell back, “No condos!”
Here we are. Though the beach is deserted, Dennis holds up a bed sheet while I change outfits. I am the director, costume designer, and prop master. Dennis snaps photos of me in purple paisley tights, a fuzzy punk rocker jacket, black leather gloves, and a gray stick-on mustache. I attempt stoicism like a Vogue model. I want to be David Johansen’s Funky Funky But Chic. There I am on my knees, the jacket parted, revealing part of my black bra. I open my mouth as if to howl. Or scream. In one image, I screw my face into ugly bewilderment as I intentionally fumble with a crown made of seashells. Wrapping myself in a silk robe covered in geishas, laughter skips out of me. Dennis smiles. “Girrl, you’re a mess.”
Let it be known I detest the word, pantyhose. It feels like a word invented by 1960s ad executives who are inattentive in bed. The only decent use, in my opinion, was explained to me by a crustry trail guide from Colorado. “Put a scoop of coffee grounds down one leg, tie it in a knot. Repeat five times, drop it in a kettle, and you’ve got enough coffee for everybody at camp.”
During high school, I refused to take the U.S. military aptitude test expected of all students. Most of my friends boycotted the day, but I couldn’t convince my parents. Instead of checking boxes, I filled the empty spaces with phrases: “I support gay rights” ”Pro-choice” “Bake sales, not bombs” “Elvis is King”. A young man in uniform pointed me out of my seat and escorted me to the back of the auditorium.
Is there a box for sensual tomboy clergy spouse artist social scientist sinner writer aunt impish Christian nature devotee teacher nerd who’s comfortable in her own skin – who likes philosophy, overalls, and dirty gin martinis?
A waxing crescent moon ascends as I face the setting sun, and this marvel of a human I call husband delights in my poses.
“Hey,” I yell, “Did you know there is an emerging body of research about the security of nature and wildness for the LGBTQ+ community?”
“Hmm. That’s cool,” Dennis says. He leans in for a closer photograph.
“There was a student who studied drag kings in wilderness, and the interviews led to statements like the bears don’t care what I wear!”
It was in the woods behind my childhood home where I decided it would be better to be a boy. The next day, I wanted to be a tree – in college, to give birth to wolf pups after gazing at the Druid pack from a safe distance in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley – (sadly, that lineage has ended). Wildness allows this freedom. The forest is a place to be in the unscripted present. A place to think or not think. To breathe without anyone projecting who and what we should be.
Here, at this beach, the heron doesn’t judge. The sandpipers have more pressing needs. An osprey does not say, you are so brave for being a woman and creating art at the same time. One day my body will be burned and scattered in the Gulf of Mexico. In my father’s words, maybe one day I will be a seashell or part of a crab.
Nature is the place I project internal debris onto. Like flotsam. The ocean does not drink too much or disappear. It does not neglect. Nature does not write concerned letters to my husband.
This is the privilege I inhabit as a person unconcerned about where my food will come from or places I may safely visit or the creative impulses born from animate landscapes. Even still, I do not know a life where there is no need to claw for access, to sniff out choices.
This is the last raw and wild frontier – our essential evolving selves, made difficult to explore by all the systemic -isms. Art-making in nature, whether playful or fervent, is the way I make sense of my place in the world. It is not a hobby just as navigating shifting currents in the ocean is not a pastime. (Perhaps it would be helpful to know that if I were to actually make a collage about sex, I would not ask for permission.)
In truth, I come from a long line of scandalous women. Women who left unhappy marriages when divorce branded reputations, women who knew how to wring chicken necks and imperfectly love their babies, who cared for their hearts in the silences between – women who made a living with what was available to them, who traveled alone, who were shut away or judged or simply too much. I am part of the women who lost their tempers, who dug into their vocations – interrogated by men questioning their intellect – women who drank and died or didn’t drink and still died, women who swallowed whole years of loneliness, who prayed in their sleep, who slipped cash into the hands of their daughters when no one was looking. I share in those who knew how to host elegant dinners or kickass kitchen parties – who wore white when they knew food would drop from their fork, women who played multiple instruments, who made art with their hands, were beloved, were celebrated, awarded, who were the firsts of things and the last of others, who knew how to coast through all the mansplaining conversations – the men none the wiser before my lineage of velvet politicos in petticoats, swing dresses, blue jeans and slacks, all those beefy shoulder pads, the flowy garments seen as flighty, not associated with a brilliant mind and yet here I am, evidence of having been raised by one, the wardrobe of which is an artful feat. There are so many scandalous women running through my blood. Women who ventured on their own terms, who fashioned their sexual economy, persisted even in their biggest messes. River rats, ocean dwellers, front porch midwesterners, pickers of rosebay rhododendrons blooming along a singing river – marrying for fear or for love – lichened tombstones tucked away in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They spoke their minds and suffered for it or were promoted – they dared not be irresponsible – they dared to be irresponsible – they dared to dream – to follow their creative convictions. By some miracle, they carried seeds of resilience, hidden in an incorruptible place. We, all of us, have sought imperfect avenues to exercise our own agency. Flourishing comes with great risk; after all, ladies, no matter what century you are born into, your heart will make you scandalous.
I offer prayers and call on us all to experience sacramental acts of art-making in the wild. Or – truly, whatever lights you from within.
The bears don’t care what any of us wear. Our strange interior landscapes do not matter to them. That’s a good thing. Stripped from nature, I would be a shadow – not playful or impish or an earnest thinker who stumbles again and again. Rather, I would be a piece of furniture. This is the opposite of scandalous.
By the time the sun dips below the watery horizon, sand has found its way into the folds of my outfits – specks of ancient Appalachia quartz unite with my own skin’s topography. Dennis tucks the camera into his shirt pocket. Our bodies, effervescent. Our hair, curled and salted.
“This was fun,” Dennis says, “I’m ready to head back and start cooking something good.”
“I should shake out my clothes,” I say.
He looks different – like a coyote I saw bounding between dunes earlier in the day. “Nah, don’t worry about that.” Dennis gathers my clothes, and I cinch the belt around my robe – the seashell crown still on my head. We make the graceless walk across the white sand – if there were witnesses, they might think we were giddy teenagers from a distance.
Dennis turns on Cajun music, and we make gumbo. Garlic skins, stray bits of bell pepper and onion stick to our fingers. I wipe my hands on my hips – the detritus falls to the floor. Dennis pulls a cast iron pan out of the oven and dances a jig over his perfect wheel of cornbread. I can anticipate the crisp outer layer, the pillowy warmth inside – a kind of earth in my mouth. A faint trail of sand follows me from the kitchen to the dining room where so many scandalous women have come before – their stories, embedded in the folds of memory.
I love the grit and grains scattered inside our home.
Joanna ES Campbell holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. Her checkered past includes teaching ecological literature and land ethics in the Wilderness & Civilization Program at the University of Montana; organizing statewide heirloom tomato festivals; and graduating high school by the skin of her teeth. She is the undefeated 1986 jump rope champion of her elementary school in which she peaked athletically. Her writing can be found in various guest blogs and anthologies as well as Farming Magazine, Art House America, Arkansas Review, Process Philosophy for Everyone, Relief, and Orion Magazine. She is co-author of the book, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food, as Seen by a Mother and Daughter. Joanna lives on Petit Jean Mountain in central Arkansas where she putters with her husband on eleven wooded acres. She is currently writing a lyrical memoir drawn from her experiences of wilderness and community in North America. Follow her blog at joannaescampbell.com