Rocks & Roots
The photo at the top of this post is of my mother, Rauha, reading the newspaper in her room at our family farm. A few years ago, she made the hard decision to sell the farm and now lives down the street. She is deeply private, doubly so because she’s a Finn. We Finns are famous for our reticence. Mom would draw apart to that room, sometimes sleeping, sometimes reading. I quietly snapped the photo that winter day, wanting to preserve the moment and even the place. I could see the day coming when we would no longer have the farm, its quiet fields and serene tree line. I was sensing the approach of days so upending that I’d want to make my own retreat to the woods.
January 20th is for me a hard day. My husband and I have always joked that we’re among those ridiculous, childless people in movies and TV commercials who are ruled by their pets. Our furry overlords are Libby and Homer—that’s the two of them in the photo above, Libby in back. On a recent January 20th, our Libby, one of the sweetest dogs in the world, left us. But not before she had taught some lessons, lessons of the heart.
On the wall at my grandparents’ house hung a picture—a night scene with a wolf on a hillside, a reproduction of a painting by Alfred Kowalski. I was drawn to it, would gaze into it and imagine the story of that wolf. When I grew up and wrote a novel, I put the Kowalski print into it—hung it on the wall at a character’s house. Details from my life show up often in my writing, especially from childhood. The things that surrounded us when we were young stay with us. Occasionally, they’ll shimmer into conscious memory, beckoning with a gentle hand, calling our attention. Consider the photo at the top of this post, taken years and years ago of three girls on their grandmother’s couch. Those girls are my sisters and I.
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.