When students struggle, I nod as kindly as I can. Do they need to know they’re not alone? Seven billion of us, each with struggles of our own. It takes practice, I tell them, and practice takes time. But persistent patience isn’t common among young folk, who seek strategies, shortcuts, miracles.
They yearn to know what I know so easily, are astonished that words and thoughts can spool smoothly–they think so, bless them–as though there were dictionaries and references in my mind. If they would believe me when I say: it’s possible to learn–
They never realize I haven’t always been old or knowledgeable, that practice continues and, dear students, so does struggle.
I was an avid letter-writer once, a great correspondent, a reliable pen pal. In return, I received long, descriptive letters from far-flung friends and relished every trip to my mailbox to discover what had arrived that day. A letter from a friend? A poem rejection? A poem acceptance? A postcard from a family member off traveling? Critique and feedback from a poetry-colleague on a series of poems? Junk mail, bills…
These days, my mailbox mostly disgorges junk mail and bills. The few friends who write lengthy correspondence usually do so by email (which I do, truly do, appreciate). My keen interest in other people’s thinking, and my opportunity to acquire perspective into their lives, must now be satisfied by other means. That’s why I follow blogs and other “long-form social media.” (I thought I had coined that term, but apparently it has been in the lexicon awhile.)
Is a letter just a blog written for an audience of one? Is a blog a diary written for an imagined public, or is it a letter to the world? What purpose do private journals serve for those of us who keep them? And what’s behind the urge to keep old correspondence? The discovery of a cache of letters features in many novels and in a host of memoirs and histories, so there’s some kind of human-interest frisson resonating there. Perhaps the simple fact that such writings were intended to be private–that audience of one–piques curiosity.
For me the hardest aspect of letting go of past correspondence is that so many of the people to whom I wrote letters have died. In my attic, there are boxes of letters from these departed friends…suggesting a different meaning for the phrase “dead letter.” In a similar vein, there certainly exist blogs by now-dead writers that remain in the cloud, hanging stuck in the interwebs. Are these memorial pages, or are they digital ghosts, and to whom do they belong?
The intersections and overlaps between these related forms of written expression intrigue me. And the nosiness interests me, too. Isn’t that one reason we like to read literature–to get an intimate peek at how other people behave, respond, solve problems, form relationships, think about society and values? To imagine to ourselves what bad behavior feels like and what its consequences can be? Or to find insights as to what generosity and love can accomplish; to gain a sense of empathy, even compassion. Plays, memoirs, novels, and poems operate like that. I’m not sure blogs and diaries work quite the same way with their readerships, but they may do.
Maybe what keeps me following any kind of writing is just the fact that I love to read.
Why don’t you write me? I’m out in the jungle, I’m hungry to hear you Send me a card I am waiting so hard to be near you Why don’t you write? Something is wrong And I know I got to be there Maybe I’m lost But I can’t make the cost of the airfare Tell me why (Why, why) Tell me why (Why, why) Why don’t you write me? A letter would brighten my loneliest evening Mail it today If it’s only to say that you’re leaving me…
The night is warm, which seems surprising in the harsh shadows, but it is only early September; even in the Pocono mountains, frost is still a few weeks off. These old canvas tents, rubberized, permanently mounted on wooden platforms, effectively block both sunlight and moonlight. So when excited thumping on our tent flap wakes us, it could be noon, but we chaperones feel too bleary for that. Ellen gropes for the alarm clock phosphorescing on the crate that serves as nightstand. “Two fourteen,” she states, stifling a groan. “What’s wrong?”
The flap opens to a triangular gap of harsh propane lamplight. The girls—there are four of them, those bunked in the tent furthest into the woods—all talk at once in hushed, excited voices. Amy woke up out in the woods, still in her sleeping bag! Someone had dragged her there, two someones, maybe three! She heard voices, whispering, and feet, walking—tiptoeing—near, very near. She woke amid dry leaves, on the ground. Hours went by. She was too scared to move. When all was still she ran to her tent, woke her tentmates. What if those people are still out there? Maybe kidnappers. No, it must have been older campers, teenagers playing mean pranks. Her sleeping bag is out in the woods somewhere. Maybe 40 yards from the tent, Amy doesn’t know. Her companions shiver.
We’ve gotten out of bed by now, pulled on our shoes and jackets. The girls agree to go back to their tent if we accompany them. We tell them to be quiet; the last thing we need is to waken thirteen other 11-year-old girls at two-thirty in the morning. Oak leaves crinkle underfoot as we walk past the firepit to the girls’ tent. I switch my flashlight off; the moon’s so bright I don’t need it. Sara’s red hair looks like a silver halo around her pale face. Ellen, resigned, opens the tent and peers in. Her flashlight reveals nothing particularly untoward. We troop inside and the girls sit on their cots.
Amy’s cot is bare: no sleeping bag. She looks chilly. Her tentmate Julie offers her a blanket, and we praise the gesture. Ellen, not a physically demonstrative person, nevertheless keeps her arm around Amy for a moment after draping her in the blanket. “It’s alright,” she says. Amy sniffles.
Having calmed the girls at the scene of their scare, Sara and Ellen go over the story again—methodically this time—keeping their voices even and unemotional. I offer to look for the sleeping bag. I like the woods, day or night; Ellen retains suburban qualms about hidden dangers and would rather be staying in a hotel than interviewing a 6th-grader in the middle of a state forest, even if it weren’t two in the morning. Or three, as it nearly is now.
The girls had tied the tent shut with what is left of rubber strapping and ropes. None of the tents have complete fasteners anymore. All of them have sides that no longer tie down to the platforms, and many of the door-flap ties are frayed or missing. The girls have ingeniously substituted shoelaces. Idly, I wonder which girl is going about with flopping sneakers.
The woods is still at first, frozen in the white light of the barely-waning moon. I notice the light before I notice the shadows. Every tree trunk resembles paper birch. The tents make wide, geometrical planes beneath the leaf canopy. In back of the tent, no sign of a rumpled sleeping bag. I take a few further steps and, on a hunch, investigate the side of the tent where Amy’s cot is. There, bunched up next to the platform and still partly covered by the open tent wall, is Amy’s bag.
Girls fall out of bed regularly at camp. The cots are narrow and slippery, covered by nylon sleeping bags. Counselors consider falling out of bed an inevitable event. In most cases, the child rolls instinctively away from the tent wall and winds up on the close-slatted wooden floor of the platform. Often the landing is soft, as preadolescent girls tend to clutter their tent floors as naturally as they clutter their bedrooms. Sometimes the sleeper doesn’t even wake up.
Amy, a sturdy and unimaginative child, a good worker, quite near-sighted, had fallen out of bed toward the wall. Because of the absent tie-downs, she’d landed on the chilly ground, hard with drought and covered with leaf litter. She had wakened to a landscape as unfamiliar as Mars—moonlight’s wan cast and resulting hatched shadows heightening her disorientation. And the whispers? And the footfalls in the forest? I could have heard them, too, had I been less familiar with the way a woods sounds at night. Several twigs fall nearby. A large moth bumps against the tent fly. The moon sheds an icy light over the oaks and red maples and wild cherries.
It seems calmer in the girls’ tent. We’re pretty certain that her tentmates have doubts about kidnappers, and that at least two of them agree Amy fell out of bed. But what’s the likelihood they’ll go back to sleep? And what about camp protocol? If Amy complains to her parents that no one respected her terror or addressed her concerns, if they believe her story, can we be sued?
At 3:30 a.m., we’re discussing legal implications of a minor event in a child’s life. But all three of us are mothers: our girls are sleeping in the other tents, we understand how frightened Amy is. This may not be just a minor event to Amy. We know things like this can reside in the mind and psyche for years. The blurry, moonlit woods, with its uncertain snaps and thumps, its rocks and chipmunk holes, the sounds like whispers—these can lodge in a person’s memory. Such a thing can foster insecurities, act as one more trauma encountered on the way to adulthood. We worry.
We want to stay out of trouble; we want to soothe Amy. We want to go back to sleep.
It’s against camp policy to have a chaperone share a tent with the girls, but we decide to break the rules for the remaining two or three hours of the night. I take Amy’s place in the far tent, Amy takes my cot in the chaperone tent. Julie asks me what I think happened, and I tell her I am pretty sure Amy fell out of bed. I also tell her I think Amy responded in a normal way. “If I woke up in the woods, in the moonlight, without my glasses, I think I’d be as terrified as she,” I say. “You did the right thing to wake us up. That’s what we’re here for, to keep you feeling safe.”
In no time, I am listening to the soft rhythm of the girls’ relaxed breaths. I lie awake awhile, dreading the fact that in about two hours I’ll be awake again, full sunlight and giggling all around me. I think about my daughter, two tents away, probably bunched up in her sleeping bag because she gets cold easily. At least she slept through our little drama. I think about how much coffee I’ll need to get through the coming day’s scouting activities. I recall the cool aura of the forest by moonlight, how safe I felt, how I want to convey that sense of safety to Amy, to my daughter, even to Ellen, so uncomfortable under the trees.
This is the morning of September 9, 2001.
September 11, 2001.
The kids have been at school about an hour. I’ve cleaned up the breakfast mess and am making a cup of tea, checking my schedule for the day. My husband’s working in his home office instead of commuting into the city. I can hear the computer humming.
He bursts from the room, switches the radio on.
“A plane hit the World Trade Center!”
My eyes go wide.
All day long, I try my sister’s phone numbers. Work. Cell phone. Home. I know her husband will be at their apartment in Fort Washington, as he doesn’t leave for work until 10 in the morning, but I can’t get through. Sometimes there’s not even a recording: “All circuits are busy.” So many means of communicating with her, and none of them work.
Her office is downtown: Canal Street. From her 9th floor office reception area there is a view to the southeast, where the twin towers dominate the skyline. I am sure she is safe, but I’m not sure how safe she will be on her long route home.
I sign onto my internet account, relieved to find J’s e-mail address on a message: “I witnessed the second plane crashing into the second tower about -hour ago. It is really scary. Hopefully we won’t have another incident in another -hour. We are staying in our offices, tho no one is doing any work. It doesn’t seem prudent to leave now. I will try to leave in a few hours once things seem safer. I’ll call you later. I love you.”
The message header reads: “Horribleness.”
My husband spends the day with news sources. I keep turning the radio off, trying the phone. No, my parents haven’t heard anything. No, my brother hasn’t either—just the same message I got. I imagine my sister walking 200 blocks uptown on this hot day, one amid an exodus of others in the sunlight and the dust.
Four pm. The phone rings—it’s my mother. J reached her on her cell phone. She was headed uptown on a bus that was empty enough, at 160th Street, to take her the remaining 30 blocks home. “I don’t know how this worked,” she said of the call getting through, “I can’t even reach our home phone that’s 30 blocks away.”
She’ll tell me about her walk a few days later.
It’ll be a long, long story.
Almost two weeks have gone by, and my son won’t, can’t, sleep. 9:45, 10:30, he’s still tossing in bed. By 11 o’clock we let him come into our room; he spreads his sleeping bag on our floor. He’s been camping out like this, on our floor, for days. Even with us, he stays awake most of the night. He admits he feels terrified. He worries every day his dad commutes to New York City.
It’s okay, we say, Dad wasn’t in the city that day.
But lots of other people’s parents were there that day, he answers. And he could have been. He could have.
Tonight, he goes to sleep at last.* I watch him lying there, one arm bent over his head, his lips parted off-center. The dog squeezes next to him and crawls halfway beneath our bed—her denning instinct takes over when she’s tired. Her long tail sweeps across his chin and he stirs slightly.
Many hours I have watched this boy at sleep, wondering at him. A few hours old, having gravely observed every bright or moving object in the room, after studying my face with his deep, wet eyes, having suckled his first milk and bellowed at being cleaned up and weighed, he fell asleep in my arms. I had felt him asleep for some time within the womb, but now I could watch the drowsy process. Now he breathes. In and out. I could not count the minutes I’ve spent watching him; minutes and hours seem extravagant, faithless, artificial things. But breath! And the slight twitching behind the eyelids, and the pulsing fontanel! Only during his sleep could I appreciate these things.
For when he was awake, he was constantly active. In an instant, he could crawl. Another instant, and he ran. Then he acquired speech, the product of which he loved. Talking is what he’s been put on earth to do. For many years the only times I did not hear his voice chattering in the background of my daily life were when he was at school and when he was asleep.
The world opened itself to him. Cautious, sensitive, he was always secure in his understanding that the world is eternally novel, interesting, and eager to receive his attentions. In the mornings he would tell me his dreams. Even sleep was entertaining; he had few nightmares. He felt safe in the cosmos.
I knew that someday he’d meet the bully, the unfair teacher, the irredeemable tragedy, and wondered how he would face such a thing. For years, he came to me, discussed the behavior of other children, talked about evil characters in books and movies, showed me what is wonderful in his life. “Look, Mama,” he said a thousand times, “Look at this new kind of acorn. Look at how the corn is blowing. Look at that big truck. Look—I think that little girl is crying. Look at my drawing. Look at me, Mama—I’m balancing. I’m a pirate. I’m Peter Pan!”
Buildings are collapsing, Mama.
Look, don’t look.
He’s nearly thirteen. No incipient beard, no hairiness or sweaty armpits yet, no break in the tenor voice. He rolls his eyes at his peers’ hormonal hijinks, the schoolboy crushes, won’t attend a dance. But the time is coming—he knows it. He’s quieter, gets lost in books, stands out in the meadow with a whippy stick, slashing at goldenrod and sumac. He lies in bed after the lights are out. He’s thinking. It keeps him awake, kept him awake even before last Tuesday.
He just has more to think about now.
We fool ourselves, thinking we can protect those we love.
~from journal notes of September 10-23, 2001
*(He will sleep for 14 hours, and I will let him do so, writing a note to the middle school claiming he was ill.)
After last year’s complete dearth of pears, this year both trees were laden with fruit so that the boughs drooped, making things easier for the deer, who love to eat them. We were happy to share, as I haven’t got time these days to make pear butter or prep fruit for canning. We gave pears to friends, made pear cobbler, ate pears for breakfast, and enjoyed them immensely. And we liked watching a doe and her twin fawns nibbling around and under the trees at dawn and towards dusk.
The summer heat broke at last after the “remnants” of hurricane Ida crashed over us. If those were just remnants, I have deep respect for the people of Louisiana, who felt the initial force. We got 7″ of rain in less than a day, and the flash floods affected many of our friends. My basement office on campus is drying out during the 3-day weekend–our building’s drainage system was not quite up to the task of directing water away from our doors. Now, the brown crickets are noisier than the katydids, the grasshoppers have grown large, the days are shorter. Tomato harvest has slowed, and gardening consists mostly of pulling up weeds and dead plants. It is as though the downpour swept away summer, despite my knowing that the hot days will return. (September can be steamy here in my valley.)
I’m reading A.E. Stallings‘ collection Like and relishing her new takes on traditional poetry forms as well as her facility with establishing a sense of place in the poems. I appreciate her images and thought-provoking ideas, too. Her work does the things that I think poems are supposed to do.
Finally, I have been drafting a few poems, or at least hoping these drafts will turn into poems. I’ve also begun examining some older work for revision and, maybe, collection into another book. But that’s looking perhaps too far ahead. After a challenging couple of years, maybe just living in the moment serves me better.
The taste of fresh pears. The sticky sweetness of fresh local peaches. The smell of basil.