Rocks & Roots
Many years ago, I went home to our family farm to visit my mom and dad. While I was there, my mother’s brothers Ernie and Bill came by. We fell into telling family stories over kahvi, which is Finnish for “coffee.” We sat a long time at that table, reminiscing and laughing as the blues and grays of evening began to filter in through the window. It struck me that no one turned a light on—no one wanted to break the spell. My uncles were educators and good storytellers. There was a playful impertinence in their eyes as they told their stories, and I understood it completely. Drinking kahvi with the uncles, I saw again what I’d always known: playful impertinence runs in our family. It’s why I write, why I write what I write—more than that, why I write poetry, which to much of the world seems a waste of time.
I feel ridiculous, and the feeling grows each day. I feel presumptuous and ridiculous, to think that as a writer I have anything worth saying when oceans are rising, the planet is burning, and the TV screen pulsates with images of people visiting horror upon horror on one another. Still, something insists that my fingers pick up the pen, and when I do, I listen, and I think, and now I have come to one conclusion. When there is nothing worth saying, say what you dare not say.
The woman in this photo, with her fishing pole and her funny cap, is my maternal grandmother, Hilda. The picture was taken on a family picnic when my mother, Rauha, and her closest siblings were young adults. They had to walk a distance to get to that lake, over rough terrain with no path. Notice that my grandmother is wearing a dress, to a picnic, and even an apron. But don’t be deceived. This simple-looking woman from backwoods Michigan was more complicated than the image suggests, and she knew herself to be capable of changing the world—yes, I said changing the world. She would have called herself traditional, but her “traditional” life was the garden my more liberal life naturally grew in. To twist familiar scripture a bit: Hilda begat Rauha, begat Donna.
Like we all do, I suppose, I think back to the house I grew up in. Life seemed more intense there, closer to the elements. The photo above was taken at that house, a boxy gray two-story built by one of the mining companies that once flourished in our Upper Michigan town. I was in high school when I took the photo—the mines were mostly closed. That’s my sister Diane standing in the yard with a neighbor’s dog. We were enjoying the heaps of snow that had sprung up overnight. My parents sold the house when Diane was ten. As young as she was, she remembers the gray house, especially the front porch. That porch, with its single couch and windows on every side, is strong in my memory, too. I left for college from that house nearly fifty years ago. But I long sometimes to go back to it, to walk again through that comforting front door and look out those sheltering windows.
Go ahead and roll your eyes now, because if you read what follows, you might think I’ve slipped off some cognitive cliff. Slipped would be an apt word—it’s January in the Midwest, cold and gray. A night of freezing rain during our last snowstorm left every surface treacherous: parking lots, driveways and sidewalks, lonely side streets. I find myself hunkering down. My eyes turn to the light of the TV screen as if they need a false sun, until my eyelids drop under their own weight. In this winter malaise, I dream about mountaintops. The strangest things happen there—encounters and “glimpses of” that will shape a person. I have two stories from mountaintops. They’re probably similar to stories you’ve told, a bit odd, a bit puzzling, but part of your bedrock.
On a winter night in 1988, I crossed a quiet street in Northampton, Massachusetts, just as a white cat stepped into the cone of light beneath a streetlight. It hesitated, then hurried across and disappeared into the dark. At the sight of it, my heart felt a shock, then sadness, and I was thrust back to the year I was twelve when I’d had a white cat I had betrayed. So many years later, I still felt guilt. On that cold street in Northampton, I didn’t know that I was not done with white cats—there would be another, a blue-eyed second chance, named Phoebe.