Clarrisa Pinkola Estes

Her Turn to Howl

Clarissa Pinkola Estes is thinking about what story she would tell to residents of Denver in 1998. She settles on "Stone Soup," an ancient tale--but not an ancient idea.

The people are starving--for soulfulness, for spirit--and they shut their doors and live behind them, and what little they have they keep to themselves. One wise man (or woman) comes into the community with a huge pot that he sets down in the middle of the village. While everyone looks on, he puts water from the community's well in the pot, then builds a fire under it. He asks the people to come out and share, to add whatever they have to the soup. When they refuse, he puts a stone in the pot. As the people slowly emerge to see what he's doing, he asks them to taste the soup. They say it's awful, that "it needs something." And pretty soon everyone is adding a precious, hoarded ingredient--a carrot, an onion. "Soon the soup is rich and it is good."

Clarissa told this same story when she last testified before Colorado legislators a few months ago. It is a story of inclusion. It is, in many ways, the story of Clarissa's life. Starting with what some people would consider less than nothing, she has filled that pot.

"A saying of my grandmother's comes to mind," Clarissa says. "'In a good country, people care more about children and old people and the poor than they care about anything else.'"

Clarissa was born to migrant workers laboring in the fields of northern Indiana. When the workers were deported back to Mexico, many local people stepped forward to take the children. A Hungarian couple, first-generation residents of this country, became Clarissa's foster family. It would be a long time, not until she found her birth parents, before she recognized all the similarities between her two families, between the Hungarian and Mexican cultures. "They all eat hot peppers and dance at the drop of a hat," she says.

Clarissa's foster parents were poor, and the neighborhood in which they lived was a deeply ethnic place, full of Latino and Eastern European immigrants and Appalachian hillbillies who had jobs in the fields and in the factories. "Almost no one was literate, but there was all kinds of music, all kinds of folk art," she remembers. And Clarissa remembers it all. The neighborhood was two blocks from the train tracks, and hoboes would come and tell their stories and show their tramp art and add their offerings to the pot. "I didn't realize until I left what a rich place in the world it was," Clarissa says.

Clarissa began writing about this place before she could write. "I would make poems and rhyme them so I could remember them," she says. Then, in school, she was learning her letters, and they looked semi-familiar, like little bugs, and she discovered that although there weren't many of them--only 26 or 27?--they could do this miraculous thing. "I figured 'god' and 'dog' were the same letters, making different words," she remembers. "It felt like magic."

It was magic.
"I could write and write and write and write," she says. "I didn't have to rhyme it, because I didn't have to memorize it. I could write it down." Clarissa and a friend would go off into the woods, exploring and looking at things, and then write down what they saw. "If you look at things really closely, you see the hidden world," she says. "In a teardrop, for example, you see the world upside down." They'd dig through dumps ("I still dumpster-dive," Clarissa confesses) and find treasures. One was a hand-crank washing machine, which Clarissa took home to her foster mother.

After all, there was always work to do. Her family had no washer, no dryer, certainly no dishwasher, and "you took care of things, or else they wouldn't last." Clarissa had to do her writing in her spare time, and there was little of that. While other kids would sneak money, sneak bike rides, sneak time on their curfews, "I'd try to sneak paper," she says. She dreamed of the day she would have paper, clean paper, and enough of it. And books. When she was eleven, in the library twenty miles from where she was born, she found big black books filled with what she thought were fairy tales. They were the works of Carl Jung.

In high school, Clarissa was told she was not college material. But college was higher than anyone in her family could ever imagine reaching. Clarissa planned to become a hairdresser: "I loved to make women look beautiful--to fix them up and tell them stories."

After high school, Clarissa left home and headed west. She landed in New Mexico, married to an artist, the mother of three daughters--and then wound up the single mother of three daughters with no money. For eighteen months she went on welfare. It saved her, and she will never forget that. "When you have no money, you have no safety," she remembers.

To make sure she could keep her family safe, Clarissa went back to school. She mothered full- time, worked full-time, attended school full-time. She didn't stop when she got her college degree, either. She kept going, all the way to doctoral studies in psychology, where she again came across the works of Carl Jung. "I felt a call," she says simply, "to help people find a spirit and free it--to unleash that force in the world."

The call was simple, but the path was long. "If I'd known in advance, I don't know if I'd have done it," she says. After Clarissa moved to Denver thirty years ago, she and two other women banded together, starting the state's first shelter for battered women in 1970, watching out for other women and one another. And people watched out for them. Clarissa remembers churches that would donate canned goods, grocery-store clerks who would leave out cases of lettuce or barely bruised produce, and "some of the sweethearts would leave perfect little strawberries, blueberries."

All told, it took seventeen years for Clarissa to become a Jungian psychoanalyst.

But even once that was settled, Clarissa was not. She would see her clients, but she would also write and write and write. She wrote a big book--a book of stories, fairy tales, really--and started sending it out to publishers. And they started rejecting it. She was in her nineteenth year of rejections--42 of them at that point--when she decided to enter Westword's fiction contest. The short-short story category. She remembers carving words out to meet the limit--"It's not just getting words out, it's preserving the story"--and then, at the eleventh hour, driving her unreliable Corvair, belching black smoke, its muffler attached with a coat hanger, down the highway to lower downtown, where she couldn't find a parking place, so she double-parked and went inside with the envelope and turned in her story at the very last minute. She won, and a story by Clarissa Pinkola Estes was published for the first time.

But not the last. The next year, after 47 rejections, her book was published. It was Women Who Run With the Wolves, which at last count had spent 145 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Hollywood came calling, trying to buy rights to the surprise hit; actresses said they kept it by their bedsides like a Bible, the female equivalent of Iron John. The book was so popular that it was parodied--in New Yorker cartoons, in Women Who Shop With Poodles spoofs. Its author was asked to join august panels discussing the State of Things, to keynote seminars, to write and write and write. "I was lucky," she says. "Tons of people deserve this. But when the window opens, it opens."

Today, when she leaves the Washington Park restaurant that is just down the street from her home, she will write an article for George, on "some things I have learned in five decades of social justice work," a partner piece for a new book (not hers) called 500 Ways to Change America. She will think about her teaching--in prisons, in a local high school. Later, she may work on her next book, A Dangerous Old Woman, a work in progress for five years (but then, Wolves evolved over twenty). In myths and fairy tales, old women frequently are called on to solve problems, to step out at the last minute, as Clarissa says, and "settle their hash."

And this woman still has some hash to settle. Her "social-justice work" recently has ranged from complaining about Channel 7's use of a phony priest to promote its news to supporting King Soopers and Safeway strikers to fighting welfare changes. She worries about a city, this city, that can build new sports stadiums, "but no longer has art teachers in the schools five days a week, no longer has music teachers in school five days a week." There is the illusion of prosperity, but in many ways, we are still poor.

"The excitement about things like building stadiums completely overshadows that you have to teach art and music and poetry to little souls," she says. "You have to have it. Otherwise, there you will be, out in the salt flats, with nothing but a world of silence.

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