07 November 2008

Listen. Pay attention.

Laura described things to her blind sister, Mary. Mom told me that's how she got so good. If you watch the world and practice describing it, you can be good too. You can be a writer too.

So I paid attention to the acrid scent of the printer shop and the hot-pressed air, to the little jars of pink and green paper clips above my head on the counter, where my mother stood at the paper cutter slicing proofs to just the right size.

And I listened to the moan of the copiers as they vibrated back and forth while I sat beneath a folding table with the box of paper scraps in strips or squares, sometimes whole sheets buzzing in yellow, fucia, french blue, or tangerine. Johnny and I would draw or fold them into airplanes while my mother made greeting card proofs. Sometimes the printer's daughter was in, and she would make paper chains with us, sitting under the table too.

My mom was a calligrapher and a watercolor artist and didn't write that often, except copying psalms and scripture verses onto her artwork. When we were kids she started reading out loud to us, to Johnny and I, who always wanted one more story. That reading of bedtime stories was the most she had read. Now she reads all the time.

Sometimes she would leave us in the car. She always took longer than she thought she would. I remember the rainy days, sitting in the station wagon--white with brown fake paneling down the sides--and she would bring sheets of paper out to us, where we drew. She would leave the radio playing, classical music, and Johnny and I would decide what kind of scene the music would illustrate. He always thought that each piece was a perfect battle soundtrack; I imagined myself riding horses through fields.

At night we would read those prairie stories, and whenever mom got to a description that she thought particularly good, she would stop and read it again--when Laura and Mary were riding on the train, and Laura described the countryside as it unfurled, colors and shapes and long shadows. "Look at that," my mother would say. "If you pay attention to everything that happens, if you practice, you can write."

20 September 2008

and then you saw miracles.

Then autumn fell across the lawn in long shadows and swift evenings and the air stung when you ran hard. Night got longer which meant you could play flashlight tag earlier, and feel older and braver, outside in the dark, crawling from one hiding spot to another. There was the smoke of wood-stoves in the air as all the sounds became clearer, carried across the cold earth more directly.

One night you pushed all the way to the back of the yard, into the empty field beyond the stone wall, and you watched from behind a tree as your sister looked for you in the little ring of light around the back of the house—she was afraid to go farther—and the neighbors called your name, and you won the game; you won it, you won it, you won it.

The shifting of seasons cut suddenly along the edges of every image in your world, drawing out the details, and as all the colors sharpened you knew exactly where you were: in the dark and unafraid.

And then maybe one night you pushed too far, past everything you knew, and the whole world lurched beneath your feet; the ground buckled beneath you. You were horrified—watching each hold loosen, each rung break, feeling physically the sickening drop. There was no sense of direction, where the house lights didn't reach. There was no assurance, where no one called your name.

Don't become too afraid.

But, she said, one day you'll wake up and this doubt will have loosened its grip. One day the serpents will unknot and slip traceless from your stomach. One morning you'll feel as if a whole layer of self has evaporated, disappeared; but the parts that hurt won't exist anymore.

She said, you don't know, you don't, how the world will settle after it shifts or when it does what the contours of the road will be. You have to be generous to everyone and hold onto your faith. God's will, she said, is a lot more resilient than your whims or your ideas. Your volatile passions are likely to break upon him, but afterward, anything that remains will be better for the breaking.

Remember what it was like when you believed that God wanted to speak to you?--that he'd formed the hungry part of you to be appeased only by himself? Remember the fear and the ache of substitution, of rationalization, of turning away?--all the times you knew that he was calling to you and yet you lied to yourself and to others?

Remember when you believed?--there was a significance then to everything, to each blade of grass around the periphery of your path, to each barrier raised in the midst of it.

Remember when you realized that dreaming wasn't enough and you began to mime along with the motions of your dream?

And then you saw miracles.

I wrote this the autumn of 2006, just after graduation. I just found it on my computer today.

18 June 2008

Turdus migratorius

I would like to take a class on North American birds and their calls. Or better, I would like to walk through the woods with someone who could tell me which call belongs to which bird.

Windows down, I am driving to work on the road I always take—the one that begins with sagging cream-colored colonial and a yard of lilacs and ends with an angular stone wall that bars legions of pine trees, erect and uncounted, from overtaking the road.

Straining my ears, I am dragging this car—this weighty noisy thing that attaches at my hips and keeps me from the fresh air and sunlight—and wishing that I was walking.

I have heard these birds my whole life, recognizing no calls save the cardinal and the mourning dove, both of which I learned before my fifth birthday.

The grey doves roosted beneath the eves of a tool shed at my apartment when I was small, their low cries in the hedges and along the swamp came sometimes later in the day and I asked my mother why they were called “morning doves.”

A cardinal couple nested in the evergreen by my window. We watched as they threaded yarn from my brother’s hat into the nest, bright blue mingling with clay and twigs, and the patient mother waiting for her chicks, spring time and hatching, summer and flight. After they left in the autumn, we gently pried the nest out the branches and studied it.

My grandfather fills his bird bath and watches the birds, still. He would tell me who the calls belong to and then maybe the hedges and the oaks and laurels would belong to me, actually.

Wendell Berry conjectures that you only truly possess the land through an intimate knowledge of its names. When a tree becomes more than a pine tree and is a hemlock. When a bird song becomes the call of an oriel.

We possess the land through words, Berry says, and maybe my grandfather was trying to pass that possession on, those mornings when we were small, sitting on the back porch of the Cape Cod house and learning Latin names.

Turdus migratorius, was the Robin Redbreast that we saw so diligently yanking up worms. Deciduous trees were maples and oaks and any others that lost all their leaves in the winter.

My grandfather lives on the same property where he was raised. He knows where the flying squirrel hides and what time of year the crows start crying at an ungodly hour of the morning.

I want to know the name of every plant in my backyard. This is mostly because I am reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek but also because of my grandfather, I think. I want to name, and thus possess, every uncurling fern, every bluet blossom, every soft mushroom appearing on rotten wood—not just the common names but the proper ones.

And I want to know which bird is singing, even if I can only hear it through my unrolled windows when I drive to work.

20 April 2008

attleborough station, south station, silver line, boston international airport--one year ago--when you came home.

19 March 2008

It's so much more final, shooting with a film camera.

I remember this, holding Chris' Nikon, as we stand on a bridge in the Franconia Notch, and I am afraid to take pictures of anything.

Each second is indispensable; each shot is final. The click imprints an image on the film and--given our recent record--it will be months before these photos are developed, before we finish this roll of film.

All the un-captured days will stack up between the ones we memorialize and those we don't. I will forget this bridge with silver-grey rails, this afternoon drive home.

I've already lost the things I wanted to imprint: the highway guardrails rusted to brick-red crisscrossing over the snow as we reentered the highway; ice cascading down the cliff faces carved through the pass; the river running beneath frozen stones and a crust of snow; the whiteness of Mount Washington when the sun strikes it.

There is also a smokestack in a valley. Between the passing pines we can only see the top of its round lip puffing away into a clear blue sky.

That's where clouds come from, I tell Chris.

You live in your own dream world, he says, smiling.

And maybe when I write, I do.

07 March 2008

[This too is an ocean just discovered: the thrashing beyond the clearing, the tides of wind through oaks, a hollow wail all night.

I awake to the hollowness: this could be a river rising, this could be reservoir's flood, this could be the ocean coming--except there is no water, not even rain, only gales and dried boughs scraping against a black sky.]

05 March 2008

chalk factories and other observations

The only noise is the noise that you carry;
your own clogs scraping, the zipper on your coat,
your inhale and exhalation of frozen breath.

The palette today is washes of grey;
power lines heavy, beaded with pigeons,
barren trees swaying, ripe with finches,
minor motions against a still slate sea.

(In the winter there are no new cars.
Last night you drove through a chalk factory,
just to match the arid pavement, cracked white with salt,
the tawny grass and penciled-in trees.)

Forgetfulness of self, of place, of life itself
can be justified by this:
sudden remembrances and stark unveilings,
when you notice the shape of each grey stone stacked in the walls,
when you realize that dark oak limbs, bent against the sky
are the only thing holding the snow from falling.

03 March 2008

the signal man's wife

I am driving Hemingway down Main Street past the RIPTA stop by M. G. Jewelers and across from the Bank.

I wonder what he would take as true and write in his notebook.

He is fanned out across my passenger seat--white-haired and bearded, black-haired and mustached, always tall--gazing up off the torn pages of my paperback volume of A Moveable Feast--split down the binding, splayed in three sections.

He would not fit in the envelope that I mailed to Spain. So he drives with me and reminds me that anything true that I know or see or hear someone say is mine to write down.

Maybe it is the image of the Signal Man's wife, at least eighty, sitting in their Newell Street apartment with her pinkish-red hair piled high, curls across her forehead, lighting a cigarette and flexing her long narrow feet in moccasins as she flips nonchalantly between TV Land and the History Channel.

I rang their bell two minutes ago and have come by to get a photo of him, on the deck of his destroyer escort from World War II, because he was honored by our Senator this week. The photo is small and worn in the center. I can barely make out his features or the ship. I say I'll scan it anyways.

"Sit down he says," and leaves the room.

The apartment walls are bare except for a faded Monet print in a plastic frame. All the end tables are covered with framed photographs--kids I assume are their children, them dancing at a party. Her hair has been red for several decades. Before his hair turned white he still had a short little mustache no wider than his nose, no thicker than his upper lip.

She hands me a box containing his medals, while he settles at a back table to write the list of guests who were at his ceremony on a piece of stationary. She hovers between the couch and the ash tray, telling me how much she loves her caller ID, apologizing that the kitchen table is covered with nearly a dozen pill bottles, and saying how very nice the Senator was, "He's funny," she says. "He's so sharp."

"Don't make me out to be any hero," he tells me as I leave. I promise not to write anything he didn't tell me.

Driving back to my office I consult Hemingway.

What would he think of this city, divided into villages that fan our around old mills?--divided in memory into past and present, a horizon of mill smokestacks and causeways, the sturdy fieldstone and bricks still standing, waiting, silent bell towers and still-turning clocks--the river snaking through.

20 February 2008

Everything happens downstairs and next door. Those bay windows face Main Street and go ceiling-to-floor. You can see under the tables pushed up to the window; you can see the diner’s knees, you can see the printed wood paneling through those windows.

I’ve only been inside twice.

On my first day I didn’t realize we were next-door to a restaurant. I drove up behind the office and wondered at the forty glittering cars in the back lot. Who did they belong to? We only have two reporters.

Now I know. They belong to councilmen X, Y, and Z, and councilwoman W, the school committee’s lawyer, and the chair of the democratic town committee. It’s one big breakfast, with all my sources in the same place. If I call them before 11 at their offices, they won’t answer.

They’re reading what we wrote in the paper, over lightly breaded home fries, scrambled eggs, and flavored New England Coffee Company Coffee. They might make some comments to one another across the room. But those comments never settle anything.

Instead of speaking table-to-table, instead of face-to-face, they leave breakfast and call me. They would rather respond in print.

My editor says this is how our paper has stayed alive the past 150 years: because of all the generations of microcosm, because in this town personal squabbles can be published as front-page news.

31 January 2008

"Journalists are, as a rule, late risers. It was seldom that in England, in those night-refuges they called their homes, Shumble, Whelper, Pigge, or Corker reached the bathroom before ten o'clock."

-Evelyn Waugh, Scoop

First it was Charles and Julia, then Father Brown quotations about "a twitch upon a thread" and mercy so terrible it tore people apart to remake them. I was haunted enough by Brideshead, but I should have guessed, from colorful Sebastian, that Waugh wrote humor too. He's one of those famous authors that I knew nothing about until a year ago and now I act as if my every discovery is a newsflash. I always fall for the dead authors.

A month ago I was reading Scoop in front of the fire, feeling like we were having a very old-fashioned evening because my dad had turned off all the heat in the house and every last sibling had arrived in the living room with books and knitting. Since there are 11 of us in the house and my brother had a guest, we were all elbow-to-elbow on the couches and pushed up as close to the hearth as possible.

I was deep in Ishmelia, a fictional African nation in the throes of a communist upheaval during the 1950s, watching poor William flounder around as an accidental-overseas-correspondent. Scoop had its share of funny moments, but not that many. I was only half impressed until I found the line above.

Suddenly, it was not me or my sloth, not my late nights, not my persistent snooze-striking, not my lack of will, but my job that was to blame. Journalists are, as a rule, late risers.

30 January 2008

counting sneezes

Today I sneezed at my desk and realized that it was the first time in a while.

This might not seem remarkable, but there were whole weeks in December and earlier in January where I feel like all I ever did when I came here was sit at my desk and sneeze--that and single-handedly empty the spring water globe when I made my tea (I thought about making a marker line every day and signing it as the water level dropped with my multiple steaming cups).

I think that is the place to start in describing my workplace, Amy, the dust.

I turned to Reporter S and said "That's the first time I've sneezed in a while." She laughed and said, "maybe you're building up an immunity." Maybe I am. Maybe the coat of dust is so thick in my lungs that they no longer respond.

One of our editors is always saying that when she worked in Africa her working conditions were cleaner.

Because this building is dusty. It's a three-story tenement house that's a couple hundred years old. The first floor is a aimless labyrinth of windowless rooms and mismatched paneling and a huge front office. We're on the second floor in this wide room with tall floor-to-ceiling windows. Supposedly the third floor, mostly empty rooms, is haunted.

When the sun shines it beams through the bay windows at the front of the newsroom, striking every particle of dust. Or, when it's cloudy out, like most days, you can look beneath the quivering florescent lights that hang from the uneven plaster and get the same effect.

The window frames, painted grape-cool-aid-purple, and the matching chair board that runs around the room all have a chalky layer resting on the top. All the desks spread throughout the newsroom are irreparably dusty. I just dust the little space around my keyboard and try to rinse off my Gerber daisies every few days. The floor "grinds" when you come in.

So I'm not sure if its good or bad that I haven't sneezed in a while. But this is all I have time to reflect on, because I have exactly an hour to finish a couple stories before I leave for After School Arts.

I don't know what city you're in now. But I'm sure the Spanish or Portuguese dust is older than the industrial revolution dust here.

27 January 2008

I have a confession.

I'm going to steal a poem you didn't write yet.

You told me about it last week, while we were walking down from the Knob. We were coming down those narrow and sandy steps that lead back towards the shore, when you grabbed my elbow.

A moment before I'd been standing up top, looking out across the water, messing with a camera. You'd been talking to a couple about their dogs, a brown bull dog and a dalmatian in disguise--she was black and only had spots on her chest.

'I could write a poem about that,' you said, grabbing me by the elbow just before we were out of earshot, 'his and her dogs.'

You know, Grandma, the secret I can't seem to learn: that poems aren't hard to write.

Around you, nothing is safe.
Not your evening dish of rocky road;
Not the red bench by Quissett Harbor;
Not the table we found behind Pie in the Sky, where we sat drinking chai in the late afternoon facing the Steamship Authority, the ferry launch, and the sun;
Not even those unsuspecting strangers who told you about their dogs.

You know, Grandma, the secret I seem to forget: that nothing is ordinary and when we write we can keep whatever we take.