kim barnes   The Way Out  
photo of kim barnes' parents

  When I think of where my life, as well as my writing, begins, I think less of time and exact location than I do of place. By place I mean not Orofino Creek, the Clearwater National Forest, the small town of Pierce, the city of Lewiston, or even of Idaho, although each of these names signifies where it is I come from. By place I mean pine, fir, cedar; I mean river, creek, the spring from which we took our water. Place is sensual, a collage of smells, sounds, sensations, tastes: the diesel scent of machinery; the distant whine of chainsaws and earth-thump of timber falling; the tart bite of huckleberries we gathered each summer while watching for bears.

My memoir, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, tells of my early life as a child coming to a sense of herself surrounded by forest, isolated from the outside world. The wilderness I speak of is both literal and figurative: the land itself, but also the spiritual and emotional wilderness that I found myself aswirl in as I came of age in the faith of my parents--Pentecostal Fundamentalism. The doctrine of our church dictated that, as daughters of Eve, women were inherently flawed and must protect themselves and those around them by remaining silent and invisible. We did not cut our hair, wear sleeveless dresses, short hems, or pants. We did not draw attention to ourselves with jewelry or makeup. I witnessed exorcisms, spoke in tongues, and became a faith healer. I believed I was saved, and continued to believe so until the summer of my twelfth year, when my father heard the voice of God telling him we must leave the wilderness.

The book details my journey out of that wilderness, my loss of faith, my struggle to make sense of my connection to family, church, community, and the land. Through the writing of my memoir, I have come to understand how my being wrenched from the place of my childhood--my protection, my safety--threw me into chaos, how so much of my life since that time has been spent trying to get back, to regain my place of comfort. It is only in the wilderness, in isolation, that I truly feel safe, at peace and somehow whole.

I have, as one reviewer noted, chosen to stay close to the place of my birth: the Clearwater River curves its way below my house, fed by the waters that once flowed past my window. In attempting to resolve myself to my past, I find that I must also make peace with the land, the wilderness my father loved more than anything, the land from which he took his solace and livelihood and in doing so, destroyed that which he cherished most.

Perhaps because I myself have been shaped, scarred, and strengthened by the land, it is the land around which I shape my stories. The river is my metaphor, the map I follow back to make sense of my life. The map itself becomes a metaphor for story--how through telling, giving voice to our past, we leave directions for others to follow, so that they, too, might find their way out.
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Copyright © 1997 Kim Barnes.