Rocks & Roots
My father, Oiva, has been gone from this world for five years, and I think of him every day. When I got married, in my early twenties, my husband and I gave our parents matching wood-and-metal wall ornaments in the shape of a cross, and my folks hung theirs on the wall in their bedroom, where it stayed for nearly forty years. I took it down from its nail when Mom sold the farm after Dad passed, and she told me to take it—it was mine. Now, at the start of each day, I touch that cross and speak aloud to my dad. It’s a ritual, a sort of love song to my father. There’s something of him there, in the metal and wood: his spirit, absorbed over decades.
The cover of my novel, A Notion of Pelicans, might suggest it’s a romance. Bear with me. My interest here isn’t really my book. The novel does have romantic overtones. It weaves together sex, God, and guns—illicit sex, an elusive God, and a fear of guns. I was raised to be a good girl, with little notion of my sexuality. It was a jolt to realize, sometime during adolescence, that I didn’t want to be a good girl. I didn’t want to be a bad girl either—didn’t want to live out any sort of narrow definition. My hopes and desires were more complicated than that.
Taping a plastic guard over your eye is a trip, in that 1960s, mind-altering sense. You’re disoriented, more aware of your body, and strangely more daring. I suppose if I wanted a polished authorial image, I wouldn’t show you the picture at the top of this post. But it’s truthfully me. I had eye surgery a couple weeks ago to implant a new lens. My husband took the photo after we got home. I was sleepy and had put the guard on to protect my eye if I dozed off. I love everything about this photo! I’m groggy from anesthesia, a bit goofy-looking. What I love most is that I’m out-of-focus, and it’s the colorful lap throw over the back of the sofa that anchors the image. The picture is grainy, sudden, but it captures my experience of life. I live blurred, on a border. On one side is what my eyes see, on the other what I sense. Two kinds of seeing, and I’m not sure which is clearer.
I write mostly for women. I’ve been doing it since the first time I set pen to paper, the summer after high school. I began a novel that summer, based on my maternal grandparents’ lives, from the point of view of my grandmother. I only wrote a few chapters, but I still have the hand-written manuscript, in pencil no less. Once I got to college and began taking writing classes, I came to see that, for many, my writing for women would make me seem less serious as a writer. I kept doing it anyway—determined to figure out a way to interweave women and seemingly masculine concerns like architecture. I also decided to keep writing about grandmothers. I’d heard classmates disparage grandmother poems, and it rankled me. Stubbornness? Independence? Yes, but I did it mostly because I am a daughter of my mother.
I’m feeling the need for poetry lately. This week is the most poignant week of my year—mid-December, the dark season, with long nights and two anniversaries of loss. During this week, on different years, I lost my grandmother and my father. Each year as those anniversaries approach, I feel a growing quiet inside—it’s heart-centered, gentle, like a shadow half glimpsed. For years I didn’t understand what was at the root of my December mood, but now I do. And that’s when only poetry will do.
I sometimes wonder. Whatever possessed me to want to write? From where I am now in life, the answer is apparent—when I started, it was with a blend of aptitude and naiveté. Writing is work, hard work, mentally and physically, and if you look to publish, it can take years to make little progress. I’ve thought, at times, I’ll just stop—just stop writing. I never have, though, because what I feel at my desk—that high of creative flow—outweighs the rest. But writing comes with other costs, too. It’s dangerous. You find yourself writing what scares you.
My grandparents had apple orchards, right next to their houses. As my grandfathers grew older and stopped mowing the hayfields, apple trees popped up everywhere. I like to think it’s a metaphor for my family. Quite a few of us on my mother’s side are writers, and I see no surprise in it. One of my mom’s grandfathers was a writer in Finland, the original tree. Growing up, I would hold in my hand the one book of his that we owned, and I’d burn with certainty: this, this shaping of words, was my purpose.
I’m drawn to white animals. Over breakfast last Tuesday, I found myself thinking about the white creatures that have been part of my life. My heart warms when I think of them, a mix of love and gratitude. Some have been pets. I chose them—two white cats, and two white...
The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” I’ll whisper that line to myself. It’s an affirmation of my desire to live lightly, to not impose myself on any person or creature. I just want to be quiet, to write my quiet books and practice my art. When...