When I was living across the river from Kingston, Ontario, I enjoyed taking the ferry over to Canada for a day trip of shopping and good eating. Later, when I moved further east, Ottawa became a destination, and then Montreal. Over the years, Quebec City remained “too far” away. But this week I’ve overcome “too far” and am being rewarded with the beauty of the city and the friendly welcome of its people. We arrived before dark, but just, and had the pleasure of watching the moon rise over the St. Lawrence River.
Sometimes “what to write” comes easily; we walk the street or overhear a conversation, or glimpse a memory, and we have enough material to last us for hours. But sometimes we could use a prompt to tickle our imagination, get us to jump off our usual track and find rich new material. In that spirit, here’s a prompt (with a bit of backstory):
In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith – poet, artist, rock star – includes this story. She and her very sick lover have left a flophouse on the advice of other residents who recognize that these two young people are misplaced among the terminal junkies who make up most the population. The pair sneak out taking only their two portfolios, but Patti goes back later to settle her bill and retrieve their belongings. She sees that her most prized possessions now decorate the landlords’ sitting room, some of them displayed on his mantel, one of her drawings hanging on the wall. Her books and record albums are packed in boxes. Over coffee Patti and the landlord negotiate the bill. All but her notebooks and a few other items are left in payment for the rent. She ends the scene with this comment, “I said goodbye to my stuff. It suited him and Brooklyn better. There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”
Prompt: What have you left behind? Is there always new stuff? Do you recognize it when it arrives? What is it about ‘stuff’ anyway? What role does the ‘stuff’ we gather around us play in our lives? What ‘place’ suits you?
The quarry man bought the old house and its acreage, scraped the topsoil off the meadow, and sold off the house with two acres of the meadow and its partial border of trees and shrub. In the house, a bathroom went in, and in a child’s room, a fat rainbow – floor to ceiling to floor – was sketched out and painted.
For thirty years, owners kept the meadow mowed. Between mowings, grasses grew, and golden rod, oyster plants, milkweed, and asters. Each late fall the meadow’s summer growth lay itself down, and in that flattened landscape the old disc harrow, stranded in its long-gone farmer’s field, reappeared.
Twenty years ago the clothes line, built with sturdy wooden posts and cross beams, stood on the far side of the cedar tree. Now its northern post is engulfed in branches. The outhouse, still visible in its pile of moldered lumber when I arrived, has long since joined the remains of the wildflowers that grew up between the boards, fell over, and decomposed. It is almost twelve years since the meadow was cut, and it is only in the last two that wild cherry bushes have spread from individuals to patches of isolated mini-woodlands that shelter bird and spider nurseries.
Each winter I cover the rain barrels and shovel the long driveway; each spring I listen for the voice of the wood frog and try to avoid the black flies’ bite. Every other summer or so I get to the task of clearing the meadow, cutting all the box elders’ sprouts to the ground. In the fall I greet the disc harrow and Orion on their return to my view, and wonder which Turkey Vulture sighting will be my last of the year.
Eventually, I will leave this place. The meadow will give way to box elder trees, or not. As I sleep beneath the child’s rainbow, my window open to the night, what is sure for me is the Little Dipper, pinned at its tail by the North Star, circling overhead. What is almost as sure is the topsoil, building. Slowly, slowly.
The geese have been restive. All summer I’ve see them occasionally. They head from the swamp next door to the wetlands across the street and beyond the woods. Or they cross in the other direction, over the back field to settle somewhere past those woods. On the last few mornings I’ve noted them more often flying low over the house in pairs or threes. They’ve remained casual in their few calls and in their seemingly random direction of flight. From one day to the next there was no change in urgency, no sense of real departure. Yesterday, on the last of a run of days in the 80s – a heat wave even by a summer measure here – they crossed the sky high up, in formation.
They have shifted into travelers; their calls have become what they become each fall for those they leave behind – the final, genuine, farewell to late summer, the earliest of the signs that will, in sum, lead us to what we will slowly, slowly come to accept: fall is taking its place in the rotation of seasons; winter will follow.
Last night’s light frost held no danger for the gardens; even the dahlias took no notice. By 7:30 in the morning it was only slight water dripping off the roof gutters into the rain barrel, and a puddle of fragile light the shape of the shadow cast by a berm on the far side of the barn. The fall-bearing raspberries, just thinking of coming into ripeness, were untouched, and the grapes offered no signs that they had noticed the chill that in the house had us bringing out blankets and talking about which day we’ll finally turn the heat back on.
It is a hazy morning, with heavy, indistinct clouds as far as I can see, but I expect that will burn off to another splendid August day. The Chinese calendar has five seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring, Early Summer, and Late Summer. This summer, in particular, I can see the wisdom in that. These August days are nothing like the days of late June and early July. We have shifted to a calmer time, a moment in the year to appreciate the deep glory of late summer.
In this first week of April, the snow pack that illuminated the fields even on cloudy nights has at last given way to the incessant rain. Last night when I stepped out into the yard with my dog on our last venture of the evening, it was a misty rain that greeted us. I stood a moment to feel the mist, acknowledge the shift in seasons. And was rewarded with the buzzy “peent” call of the woodcock sounding from the field beyond the barn. There has been no return of the spring-warmth that visited us in February, but the woodcock’s arrival assures me – spring has arrived within its beating heart.
On the 45th anniversary of Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . .”
Report From the Field: 1977-78
Half a decade after the enactment of Title IX, in my senior year of college, a graduate student organized my university’s first women’s track team. I had been on the first girls’ cross country team at my high school and was glad for another opportunity to train and run, even at such short distances. When I joined the college team, what I knew about being on a team I knew from high school: the boys’ and girls’ teams sometimes practiced together and, when schedules allowed, cheered each other on at meets. And the introduction of the girls’ team meant the introduction of spin-the-bottle at team parties. It was all good.
College was different. In high school our team almost always won our meets – we were one of the few schools that had enough runners to actually qualify as a team. In college the problem wasn’t the size of the team, but the need to enter a minimum number of events. When coach asked for a volunteer to learn to run hurdles and no one else spoke, I volunteered. He was pleased, my teammates were in awe, and I was ready to try.
However, the athletics department wouldn’t give him the key to the equipment room. I was instructed to go to the gym during the men’s practice and use whatever equipment they were not using. Coach had a grad class during the times the men’s team practiced, so he could not go. Instead, he instructed me beforehand on warm-ups, the setting of the hurdles, the placement of my feet between the hurdles, and what to do with my arms, legs, and torso going over them.
My first day of practice set a pattern for every other practice. Because of my own class schedule, I arrived after the men had already started. No one greeted me, no one showed me where the equipment was stored. I found it myself and got out the three hurdles they weren’t using, brought them to one end of the gym, and, with my coach’s words in my head, paced off the spacing of the hurdles, set them up, and began the routine he had prescribed. No one in the gym ever spoke to me – not my classmates, not their coach. I, in turn, never spoke to them. They seemed not to even look at me, and after the first few minutes of that first session, I never looked at any of them.
I have no idea what I was to those young men in that gym, long ago, who did not acknowledge that I shared a sport with them. But I know I made them nothing to me. I was alone in the room, me and my two or three hurdles, with my coach’s words in my head while I counted off my pacing, and with my own words crafting my report to him. In memory, I see only my narrow end of the gym and my few hurdles, and I hear only the sound of my sneakers hitting the floor.
At each women’s team practice I described my latest solo session to my coach, and he offered his advice. Once when I was home for some reason, I walked across the street to the high school’s track that encircled the football field, set up the two hurdles that had been left out, and practiced. Except for track meets, it was the only time I ran the hurdles on a track’s surface. And while I think it is true that the only time my coach ever saw me jump a hurdle outside of a race was during warm ups at meets, I know it is true that the only time I ran a full set of hurdles was during a race.
Running hurdles is an amazing sport. To run at and over the first hurdle is not such a big thing, to land and keep going and set yourself up for the next hurdle is everything. Again, and then again, and again. To line up with other young women and launch out to hurdle myself over those metal bars as they multiplied out in front of me was to experience a shock of physical accomplishment.
On reflection, I know my younger self was fueled by curiosity and desire, and I feel neither anger nor indignation on her behalf. What I feel instead is gratitude for her stubbornness, appreciation that in those quiet practices I learned how to adjust my stride and place my feet, learned how, in midair, to judge the quality of my effort and shift my physical and mental attention so that with each landing I was already at work on the next hurdle. And in my races, when I had run my accustomed few hurdles and began on the others, I learned I was not bound by the limits of my experience. I could take what I knew from three hurdles and go beyond: during my practices I may have learned how to take to the air, but during the meets I was introduced to the deep well of my endurance. It is a well I have returned to, and will continue to turn to, again and again.
Today I saw the first robin of the year, but she flew from branches dusted with snow and will have to tolerate degrees in the teens before she is done with this week. But her arrival is a sign that spring will win soon, and mornings of waking to a wonderland of snow that brightens the landscape and records the paths of critters that cross the back field are coming to a close. While it is still winter-like I thought I would share this winter poetry, “Whiteout Conditions.” It was selected by poet Maurice Kenny to appear in a collection he edited, On the Quad.
Through the country night snow falls
two inches an hour, warp speed at my windshield.
Star Trek star fields have nothing on these
accelerating toward the glass.
All speed ahead
All speed mine
To the left, to the right, flakes drift
casual, to the ground.
Where I live, the day after you decide that most of life has hunkered down to a private realm of winter-slowed heartbeats, a white weasel scales the rough-cut siding outside the kitchen window to perch below the eave, and a Barred Owl hunts the daylight hours on a low branch just the other side of the garden.
Where I live, if you discover on your country road an old half-ton truck stopped in its tracks with a flat tire, and part of its load of split wood strewn onto the road behind it, pull over and, in imitation of the luckless driver, begin to toss pieces of firewood to the roadside. Nod when he explains, “They’re gonna have to unload it all anyway to fix that flat.” When another person pulls over and bends, wordless, to the work, nod to him as well. Some other day, doing some other thing, each of you would ease your way with banter. But today there is the task at hand for ease, and you three move, quiet, within the measured beat of rural life.