Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Read on...

"Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterwards have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of over-simplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life. Poetry is a verbal means to a non-verbal source."

A. R. Ammons, excerpted from "A Poem is a Walk"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beyond this road, another.

It's over now, those lucid, magic months. Those weightless nights of dreams; those roads that wove. Those empty rooms, those crested peaks, that coastline. It's over now, it starts again. In other rooms, Daniyal Mueenuddin wrote, there are other wonders.


My three-year-old calico only starts to yowl when I bring her out of my mother’s warm kitchen and into our freezing garage. Until now, she’s been quiet in her carrying case; she huddles there. Even with the new electric door with its better insulation, we can see our breath in this garage, my mother and I. We arrange my down jacket on the front seat around the carrier so her spot will be soft, but Pants cries and squirms like she’s all of a sudden realized what’s happening. Does she know, somehow, that we’re going to be driving for six days and three thousand miles? I’ve told her so, and even though my mother says she can’t know, I believe otherwise. While we say our good-byes, my face pressed against my mom's thick sweater, Pants fidgets and I can hear the down being crushed. She knows, I tell my mother, and through my tears I roll my eyes. My mother doesn’t weep until I’ve reached the end of the driveway,  snow creaking beneath my tires. Then, her face crumples and mine does and I drive away with my mother’s tears in my mind, down the hill and alongside the meadow I’ve known all my life.

But by the time we’ve reached the intersection of John Brown, the road I grew up on, and Old Military, Pants is quiet. She is half-lying down, half-crouched, a position she will maintain for most of our trip. Her eyes are open wide, her pupils thin slats, and she gazes up through the mesh at the sky. She makes little noises when I sneeze or reach across her for my bottle of water, but mostly she is silent.

She’s silent, that is, until we drive out of Saranac Lake and towards Tupper and the road suddenly begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and Pants starts to fidget again. She begins, occasionally, to yowl, and eventually she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Her ears are pricked; she is angry with me. Pants, I say. She yowls. I want to blame my father for recommending this route—through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water and at the edges of steep mountains. Those are the last of the High Peaks, he had said, and then there’s nothing til you get to New Mexico. And so driving that winding route, slowing and speeding up and listening to Pants’ cries, I do not blame my father, because I am grateful. This is the last of it, I say to myself, and drive slowly past the stands of pines, the frozen swamps, the birch bark that peels from the leafless trees.


We’re bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there, and a job. My dad thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother there, at Taos on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

I trust my father’s endorsement, because I know he’s seen much more than he lets on. He is one of the smartest men I know, but even if he weren’t, I’ve seen New Mexico, too. Twice I’ve been there, and once was sweet, and once was…well, once was terrible, but both were beautiful.  In any case, I know he’s right about the place, know that even if it doesn’t work out for me, I will try it. Something whispers to me from there, and it’s not just because he said it’s the least American. Something about the desert, the journey, the proximity to the border. The way Donigan and Holly told me, without hesitating, Go. There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting. There are two friends and a job, and they’re waiting for you there. Pants looks with wide eyes at the sky above us, and blinks. Soon, I tell her, we won’t recognize this country at all.


On the first night we make it to Rochester. We sleep in the house of my aunt and uncle. He is my father’s brother, and of my father’s three siblings, Philip resembles him the most. They’ve got the same long nose, long face, even the same hairline. Philip is more technologically inclined than my father, however, and types away on his Smartphone as Mary Liz prepares dinner: mussels in white wine sauce. The food is delicious, hot bread and the small, chewy bodies of those mussels. Pants waits upstairs in my cousin Martha’s bedroom, a pink room with pillows embroidered to commemorate her graduation’s from high school and college. Pants lies on the bed but does not sleep, and purrs throatily when I enter the room and close the door behind me. She is tense through the night; my aunt and uncle’s dog is a wiggly, noisy cocker spaniel who lies waiting on the other side of my closed door, pushing her nose at the base of it. Pants’ tail is permanently fluffed, to make her look bigger, I guess.

We wake before anyone else, and while I wash my face and brush my teeth, the sky still dark outside, Pants paces behind the bedroom door. While I drink coffee with Philip and Mary Liz, I imagine her sniffing at her carrier and the blanket I tucked inside. I brought it from home; it was my childhood comfort blanket, and I pray that it calms her the way it did me.  When it’s time to leave, Mary Liz waves at me out the dining room window. A friend once told me that the nicest thing you can do for someone when they’re leaving is to wave at them until they’re out of sight, and I wave back beneath the January sky.

I’ve lucked out with the weather so far: clear, cold air, and only wispy clouds on the horizon. Rochester is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home; how strange it feels to get in the car for a second day, and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I've never seen the Great Lakes til now, which run alongside us for miles and miles, wind whipping over them and across the road and car.

We drive through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana to reach Michigan. I hadn’t expected this, hadn’t realized so many states would break up our journey to Ann Arbor. The signs at the roadside take me by surprise: Welcome to Ohio, Now Leaving Indiana. The radio stations give the local news, which I listen to in snippets while Pants shifts in her carrier. How strange and familiar both it feels, to pass through places so quickly, catching only glimpses of the houses, those towns, and not a glance at the lives inside.

In Ann Arbor, we sleep at the house of a friend I’ve known all my life. She admits that she’d never be in this town—so similar to Cambridge, I think—if it weren’t for school. She longs for the mountains and is counting the days til she, too, can drive away.  We do our favorite things: walk and drink wine, eat dinner and gossip. In the morning, I get in my car and kiss her goodbye, and for the third day we start to drive farther from home. The sky is blue again and for that I am grateful, for beneath gray skies this flat land all around us would seem endlessly bleak.

We reach Chicago sooner than I’d expected, and stay this night with a friend who’s eight months pregnant. I haven’t seen her since her wedding, and she is transformed. She walks differently, she speaks differently, it is as if she exudes this child inside her. They have become a part of each other, and now Dante is different. The apartment she shares with her husband is immaculate and stylishly decorated, with a massive flat-screen in the corner and a Christmas tree decorated with coordinating ornaments. I do not recognize her life. I sleep in the room that will be her baby’s room while Pants sniffs at the walls, the floors, the L-shaped sofa, the thick coffee-table. She smells the other two cats that live here, and while I sleep they slink the night away, hissing at each other and chasing. We must park my car in a garage this night, and when I go to retrieve it in the morning, the man who runs the desk there laughs. You moving? He asks, chuckling at my jam-packed, dirt-stained car. I want to tell him no, just to see the look of surprise on his face, but instead I just nod and drive out of the city and into the farmlands again.

We drive into and out of St. Louis, a city I’ve always been curious about. I see the famous silver arch that stretches to the sky and, beyond that, the downtown, with its workers dressed in sleek black suits, coffee cups in hand. It’s lunchtime. All I see of this city are these moments: the crowded park, the brief stretch of tall buildings, the hot-dog stands, the houses that thin and then disappear and it is emptiness again. There is always this lucky blue sky. On our fourth night we sleep in a cheap hotel off the side of the highway, and all night I hear the cars roaring up and down it. I crack the window; the night is warm. Pants looks out onto the parking lot but does not make a sound, and I feel badly for making her stay in this tiny room that smells of disinfectant and, faintly, of cigarettes. She is good-natured, though, and sleeps beside me all night. I thought this would feel familiar—a hotel room, alone—but it only feels empty, too quiet, even with the sound of the cars and the drone of the television. In the morning sunlight falls onto the bed, and I drink the free, bad coffee at the front desk and leave.

Missouri is pretty—what we see of it, at least, which are the hills that roll, revealing more and then less of the still-blue sky. Dark, short shrubs dot the landscape, and there aren’t so many parking lots here, so many shopping malls, so many empty stretches of concrete. There are adult video stores that advertise themselves with illuminated signs elevated high above us, and there are caves for exploring. I know this because of the billboards that show eager families entering the darkness. There are massive tee-pees and warehouses with Indian handicrafts for sale, and huge wooden Indian chiefs who smoke pipes and glare at passerby through grim lips.

And then, Oklahoma, with its roadside warnings that abortion kills, and its megachurches. I shudder and drive faster. This night, we stay at the house of a friend I haven’t seen in ten years. She’s got two kids now and is expecting a third—she’s ready to pop, but unlike my friend in Chicago, this woman doesn’t discuss the pregnancy, much. Instead, she talks about her children, her husband, the way everyone here knows if you don’t go to church, and how her closest friends frown on her for getting rid of her unused embryos. She seems happy, though, and her husband is kind. We eat pizza and play Nintendo and I read to her oldest before he falls asleep. I am given the daughter’s room, and Abby sleeps with her husband and youngest girl in their bedroom. She is awake when I open my bedroom door at five AM to wash my face and brush my teeth. She offers me breakfast, I leave in the darkness, and we drive for hours, waiting for the sky to brighten. I think that I am happy for them, the way they’ve made such a sweet life for themselves in a city of housing developments and strip malls. We’d rather be anywhere but Tulsa, they tell me, but I envy their happiness.

The country gets worse from here. The sky gets bigger but not more beautiful, the land gets flatter and turns from earth-brown to slate-gray. The wind gets stronger and whips at the car, and when I stop to get gas I’m nearly blown off my feet. We, the gas pumpers, crouch against the wind, flatten our bodies against our cars, pull our hats down over our ears. I drive through ugly Amarillo, through the ramshackle towns that line it, past the massive billboards and the broken cars. The roads off the highway aren’t paved. Will it be like this from now on? I worry, and wonder whether I’ve made a mistake. Pants huddles, her eyes big as saucers, and watches the shifting sky. This is Texas, I tell her. She starts to panic, to pace as best she can, and I fret over her. We pull over into a gas station and I take her and her litter box into the dirty bathroom. But while the cars roar past and the door to this bathroom is all that separates, Pants begins to purr, to rub against my legs, and the litter goes ignored. After ten minutes I pack her back into the car, and from then on, she’s quiet again.

As soon as we cross out of Texas and into New Mexico, everything changes color. The shift feels to me miraculous. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant mesas. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep. The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but it feels familiar, for these are the mountains, these are the trees, this is the soil—all different, to be sure, but also the same. We make it to our new house before nightfall, and the air is clear but warm.


In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns. You aren’t from here, are you, he says, when I ask him a second time what they’re called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

The rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. Meanwhile, I hike in the woods and inhale the scent of it; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means. Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast.  Start with green.

The few friends I have here surround me, and the nights I spend with them taste sugar-sweet. Just before darkness, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see. We’re here, Pants, I whisper, and reach up to pull her towards me. Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’re a little afraid, but we’re tasting it all, and we keep our eyes open.

Pants at the Motel 6, being a good sport