Apropos of the First Day of School…

 

IMG_6633 - Version 2Stepping Off

Always, in the big woods, when you leave familiar ground

and step off alone into a new place there will be,

along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement

a little nagging of dread.

It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and

it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.

What you are doing is exploring.

You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place,

but of yourself in that place.

It is an experience of our essential loneliness;

for nobody can discover the world for anybody else.

It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that

it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and

we cease to be alone.

 

-Wendell Berry

The One-Inch Journey

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Five of Five (Good Things)

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From an interview with poet August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER

Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?

KLEINZAHLER

No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.

INTERVIEWER

One more: some argue that the only value of a work of art is the value others derive from it. Do you agree?

KLEINZAHLER

I don’t think of such imponderables as “the value of art.” I do think, however, no matter how difficult or opaque the work, the making of art is a profoundly social activity, even if it’s one-on-one with some sort of ideal reader who doesn’t exist.

Five Good Things

Five good things,  I tell my daughter as she leaves for school.  Because the weight of Twelve drags heavy on her shoulders lately, especially in the mornings, more of a burden than the overladen backpack middle school requires.  See if you can see five good things as you walk to school this morning.  

Earlier, I had a few free seconds with my cup of coffee before everyone woke up, so I glanced at the newspaper. Before I even realized what I’d started, I was halfway through an article about the Family Room set aside for private mourning in a building across the street from Ground Zero, about how, over time, it organically grew to be a sort of shrine:  grief made tangible.  The photograph of that room, full of objects and images of loved ones, was unbearable.

I realized that this morning I might need that quest for five good things as much as my daughter, who’d told me her Instagram feed when she woke up was a succession of burning buildings.  I shut the laptop and went for a walk.

A smattering of dried leaves in a brushstroke on the sidewalk:  fall is coming.  

The clump of beauty berries at the side of a neighbor’s house, so hazardous in its purpleness — how can any animal dream of consuming them, how could nature come up with them?  They’d be more at home with the brightly-colored plastic flotsam in the aisles at ToysRUs.

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Three pears balanced on the overpass railing.  Left there — why?  By whom?

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The usual suspects, the walkers I always see at this time of morning, when I myself am walking:  the smiling young man who often sports a t-shirt silkscreened to look like a tuxedo, a dapper fancy-dress that celebrates the day.  Is it is favorite shirt?  What is he always listening to, through those earphones?

His smile — beautiful.

The lean saturnine man who used to just walk a Great Dane but now walks Great Dane and Baby, his slow amble mainly just to allow his dog time to nose the curb, even though I like to think it says time, time, I have nothing but time, I am home every morning with a three-month old baby.  

The jogger I call the Victorian Strongman, with his drooping handlebar mustache and sideburns and his springy lope.

The spent-handkerchief crumple of the moonflower blooms along the fence; the snail meandering through the wet grass; the strength of my shadow as it travels the pavement.

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Five good things,  the leavening, life’s sweet.

… Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people…any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsey, sitting on the floor cutting out pages from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss.  It was fringed with joy.

—To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Harvest: An Ode to Sun Golds

This morning, as I headed somewhere, car keys in one hand, iPod in the other, I found myself yanked momentarily away from my earnest, busy intentions[1]by a glimpse of gold peeping from the green foliage in the corner of our front yard.

And then, before I really knew what hit me, I was balanced precariously at the edge of the raised bed we call our “garden,” plucking cherry tomatoes from the sprawling vine.

It is one of the rituals — and pleasures — of my domestic life that every spring I plant tomatoes. The ritual began a year or so after we bought our first house, when our oldest was a toddler, and in the beginning, I had grand ambitions for it, as I do for most things. Tomatoes, I promised myself. Watermelon and cantaloupe. Summer squash and zucchini and cucumbers.

I would feed my little family of three just like a midwestern farm wife!

Spring Planting, 2003

Spring Planting, 2003

That first year, I started heirloom seeds I had purchased from a beautifully-illustrated catalogue .  I  ended up with dozens of seedlings that, lacking that midwestern farm wife’s farm, I mostly had to give away. That first year, I knew someone who had ten-acres-and-a-mule so I hauled home trash cans of black gold (i.e. manure) in the back of our newly-acquired station wagon. I nursed the seedlings along, got them into the ground; I battled horn worms. I can’t remember if the harvest that year was good or bad.

In the eleven years since, my ambitions have been whittled down. On a good year, I plant tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and one of the other of them will stubbornly refuse to grow.  More often, I just buy tomato seedlings at Lowe’s and slap them into the ground and hope for the best. I used to be a thoughtful gardener:  now I know that things grow despite —not because of — me.  Some years squirrels get all my harvest. Some years, it’s just plain too droughty, and I forget to water regularly, and the whole enterprise is pretty much of a bust.

This year, I planted cherry tomatoes because I was sick of spending 4 bucks a pint for them all summer long.  Sun golds and black cherries — so candy-like you could almost call them the bonbons of the tomato world.

If nothing else, growing your own food is a great way to learn just hard it can be —  to grow food.  My garden could never — not even in my wildest dreams —  produce enough to see us through a winter.

Although our society is rife with inequities, certain sorts of abundance are a given.  We assume there will always be cherry tomatoes, arrayed pint-beside-pint at the grocery store. And that assumption is correct.  Barring apocalypse, there will be.

The lesson the tomato plants in the front yard teach is that the fact that I get even a single tomato at all is a miracle.

This morning, I set my business aside for a few minutes and picked tomatoes.  In seconds, I had more than I could hold in my hands.  I made a bowl of my t-shirt; kept picking.

The plants are such an unmannerly sprawl that finding the fruit is a game of hide-and-seek.  Just I think I’ve gotten all the ripe ones, I move to the other side of the bed and spy new ones. There is always just enough for dinner that night, and the next day’s lunches.

Sun gold.

Sung old.

The garden sings its beautiful song.

It might as well be a detail from a fairy tale, the way the plants magically replenish themselves in the night and then offer up more, our everyday abundance.

 

[1] Must be productive, must be efficient, must keep to the schedule, the to-do list!

Home.

Back in the early aughts, soon after I returned to Georgia after spending a decade elsewhere, I wrote a personal essay  in which I referred glancingly to the fact that I lived in “intown Atlanta.”  The editor  of the publication struck the word “intown” from that description.  To her, Atlanta was just Atlanta.

Me, I’ve lived here long enough  now that I split hairs.  There’s metro Atlanta, which probably encompasses the top third of Georgia these days.  And then there’s OTP (Outside the Perimeter), which refers to everything outside I-285 .  That’s probably where your cousin lives, or the person who was a friend of a friend who got married in 1994.  No, I haven’t ever met them.  In fact, I might actually live 30 miles from them, since I live  ITP (Inside the Perimeter).

And then there’s intown Atlanta, which, in my idiosyncratic definition, refers to six or seven very specific neighborhoods inside the perimeter that blossomed 1890- 1930.

And then there’s southeast Atlanta, that quadrant of Atlanta located south of I-2o, more grit than grits,  where I’ve lived for over sixteen years, where I’ve occasionally been part of a guerrilla band of neighbors that paints over graffiti on vacant storefronts.

This summer,  I’ve had the opportunity to read proof for a couple of stories of mine that will be published over the next few months. Both of those stories are Georgia stories, a state of affairs that  surprised me when I read them over.  How did I get here?  I never planned to inhabit this patch of writerly dirt!  (This shows a pretty willful disregard for facts; just what did I think I was going to write about instead?)

Each of these stories is set in Atlanta, the City too Busy to Hate — the city I have for much of my life loved to hate.  They’re both set, more specifically, in a gentrifying neighborhood in a sort of fictional-but-resembling-the-real southeast Atlanta.

One, “Bubble,” will be out some time this month in Front Porch Journal:

What they’re doing strikes him as oddly like shopping. It is shopping, of course, but sometimes it seems like a particular kind of purchase, one he’s more used to. It’s almost as if the two of them are pushing a shopping cart together down broad, well-stocked aisles. They’re searching for particular brands promising certain things.

Sheila won’t ever find a shampoo that makes her hair as shiny as the hair of the TV models who tout it, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop hunting, The house they are looking for is just up the road. When they find it, it’ll be perfect.

“There’s a For Sale sign,” she says. “Up there. Do you see it?”

Once upon a time, watching her select shampoo was the most intimacy he could imagine.

The second, “The Latch,” is forthcoming this month as well, in Michigan Quarterly Review:

The neighborhood had changed so much, hadn’t it? she continued, once she had twisted back and was staring again out the window. Her movement had sobered her up or loosened her tongue, Kyle wasn’t sure which. The previous owners had taken that house down to the studs. She waved a hand. Before that, it had been a crack house. How long had he said he’d  lived around here?

“I stripped at least seven layers of paint off every single piece of woodwork in the house when we first bought it,” she continued. “With dental picks. Seven layers. One of them was magenta.”

Because Kyle lived in a house where the trim in the bathroom had been painted gold by Melinda, he could believe this.  He murmured politely, the same way he agreed with customers at the restaurant, who looked at its brick walls and exposed ductwork and sometimes made the same sort of observations. That the neighborhood had changed; that they themselves had lived there long enough to be a part of its transformation. As if the fact that they were spending twenty-five bucks on an organic roasted chicken breast sitting in a pool of balsamic vinegar reduction somehow proved they had had a hand in any of the changes they were pointing out; as if any of those changes were germane to anything that actually mattered in the long run.

***

Daily, as part of my Atlanta life, I get in my car and drive north, across I-20.

Better,  people who live in southeast Atlanta say when they talk about what lies on the other side of that overpass.  Better schools, better grocery stores, better services, better streets, better restaurants.  Folks in this neck of the woods are always talking about pulling up stakes  for those greener pastures.

Daily, I get in my car and drive across I-20, past this sign:  Image

***

Middle age may very well be  the recognition that in the end you have to settle somewhere.  Have to choose something. Even not choosing becomes, in the end, a kind of choice.

Eventually we each of us  find a patch of land to call our own.

I never expected to, but I live sixty-some odd miles from the place where I started first grade.

And sixth grade.

Sixty-some odd miles from where  I graduated from high school.

And from college.

During my footloose twenties, whenever I lived elsewhere, my heart turned over every single spring, because I missed the exuberance of spring here.

This particular patch of dirt!

In some ways I know it like the backs of my hands.

It is my phantom limb, my ball-and-chain, the setting for my stories.