This Brief Place

These few days, we’re staying in a house without a clock, which makes me realize just how much of my life is sewn together by those magic hands. When my daughters were tiny, and I was mostly home with them, our lives unfolded daily in the ways of very young children: the endless cycle of eating and play and napping. Now, I arrange complicated days, while stringing together long hours of work. But even when I have that time, I am always aware of that clock hammering down: work, work, while I have time.

Now, time-out-of-clock. With the shades pulled down, we slept late this morning. The sky is sleeting, the house warm, the children here and well. We may never return to our empty house.

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings…

M. S. Merwin, “Thanks”

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How You Know Yourself

Watching the Olympic swimmers, my daughters wondered what went through the swimmers’ heads while they spent endless hours practicing their watery strokes. Intense concentration, or sometimes a grocery list?

I imagine that must be way they know the world, I answered. My older daughter at 17 uses photography as her own personal lens of knowledge. From a very young age, I knew the world through fiction, with an insatiable desire to read. An essay of mine about writing just appeared in Green Mountains Review, chock-full with the sun and the moon, wood stove ashes on the floor, a toddler and her tricycle. It’s my own particular story, my own grain of sand reflecting this bit of the universe.

And so I think of Michael Phelps and his teammates, male and female, their arms mightily stroking through the water, breathing in their knowledge of the world, sublimely sacred at times, no doubt profound to the bone at others.

When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion.

J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction

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Seeing & Writing

A rare epiphany today. Sitting in on a grade school math class, I listened to children figure strategies to determine the precise number between 28 and 43.

Like that, I saw in the sunny classroom the mistaken path I’d taken in my novel’s rough draft. So intent was I on constructing the whole that I’d overlooked the necessity of knowing each particular piece – the unknown that will carry me from 28 to 43. Is it merely that I feared to lose sight of the whole? In each of my characters – as in every one of us – there’s an empty place, a yearning of trembling hunger.

After school, sprawled on the dim staircase while the kids practiced basketball, I wrote my own variation of strategies for those missing pieces – about the teenage boy who lost the lucky rabbit’s foot he had stolen from a corner store years before, while his uncle argued with the cashier about a lottery ticket. As stolen contraband (and girly pink), the boy had kept the rabbit’s foot hidden. Through coincidence, a woman finds the broken thing ground into an icy road….

In the handful of those classroom moments, I realized these pieces might form the schematic of this novel yet-in-the-writing, and while amorphous destiny hides from us, the coincidences winding us unwittingly together are a misplaced rabbit’s foot or a sweater left on someone’s chair.

… over time, we stop perceiving familiar things – words, friends, apartments – as they truly are. To eat a banana for the thousandth time is nothing like eating a banana for the first time. To have sex with somebody for the thousandth time is nothing like having sex with that person for the first time. The easier an experience, or the more entrenched, or the more familiar, the fainter our sensation of it becomes. This is true of chocolate and marriages and hometowns and narrative structures. Complexities wane, miracles become unremarkable, and if we’re not careful, pretty soon we’re gazing out at our lives as if through a burlap sack.

— Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

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Unfolding Fern

I’m reading tonight at the Hartland Pubic Library, in Hartland, Vermont. Here’s a paragraph from my essay about writing this novel:

From the opening sentence, the book arcs as a metaphorical unfolding of a fiddlehead, from youth’s smallness to the generous flourish of a mature woman. Fenollosa writes, “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature…. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things….” (10) In Hidden View’s opening lines, late winter sunlight glints harshly over icy snow, and cowshit tracked by boots erodes the pure white. A mixture of shit and beauty winds all through this book; opposites, as the yinyang symbol reminds us, do not exist as discrete entities in nature. The conundrum of how our fairest aspects are equally suffused with our foulest elements rises to the forefront as the novel climaxes. I imagined my characters as ascending, grappling birds. As they fought with each other – husband and wife – brother and brother – their interior natures battled, too: would decency and kindness prevail, or fear and its loathsome clutches? How would it settle out for Fern? For her husband? How would her love affair with her husband’s brother resolve?….

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Photo by Molly S.