March 31, 2011

Peace Like a River

Such timing, this book entering my life, the landscape shifting and changing around me, just so. Come two more weeks into April, and I could not have abided a story with blizzards and below zero temperatures. Come one week earlier, and I would not have savored strong rivers and spring time like I do this day.

Also: pardon the antiquated language. This is how eleven-year-old Reuben Land talks, steeped as he is in his dad's KJB. Also, I have this terrible habit of falling in love with first-person narrators just like him, first-person narrators who believe that round and starchy words have a place on the tongue.

Peace Like a River. Minnesotan Leif Enger wrote a good one.

The book came out in 2001 and promptly garnered a bevy of accolades and "best-seller" labels. It's easy to see why. This story is nothing if not eminently readable. Let me just list some prevalent themes: family, tragedy, faith, love, adventure. You see what I mean? There is not a lot that is racy here, nothing that you wouldn't recommend to your mother or middle-school aged sister, but for the pure sake of story--character to plot to POV to scene--this tale sung for me, and really, isn't that the most important thing?

Rueben's and his family's story takes place in both Minnesota and North Dakota in the 1960s, and it's as much about miracles as it is about a family taking off in search of their outlaw brother. And, as in most adventure stories, the land--the family's last name, no less--plays a strong, sometimes miraculous, role. In an interview, Enger said it was hard for him "to fully picture a character without the ground he occupies, or his responses to new landscapes," and this to me feels exactly right. Our surroundings do play a significant role in how we experience our lives, how we think about the world, and how we tend to react to it. This is natural. Not a show, not an interview, not a Facebook status, and it's therefore a simple, accurate way to characterize. Say you're immersed in fog, for instance: Does it annoy you, do you grip the steering wheel, or does it, like Reuben says, "smell like April... [feel like something] you could weigh in a cupped hand" (141, 142)?

Say you're caught in a ground blizzard?

Say you stumble across a crack in the February earth that's spitting fire?

Say you are home again after a long time away, and it is springtime now, and there are memories you'd just as soon forget, and others you're afraid will fade? What does that look like, to you?

There is a line toward the end of the book that I love: "The pulse of the country came around me, as of voices lifted at great distance, and moved through me as I ran until the words came clear, and I sang with them a beautiful and curious chant" (302).

This will make sense after you read the book, which you should, preferably before summer arrives. But even if you don't, read at least that line again. Read it out loud. And listen for the pulse that is ever under our feet.

March 25, 2011

"A Northland Spring"

The thick nouns of our winter cold are soon
To disappear like shifting, soft vapor,
Like morning fog that clings as close as loons
To lake tops warmer than the April air.
When up it lifts, the skies erupt in blue
Announcing with the earth that spring has sprung.
Warm breezes! Rain! Round, cotton clouds and dew!
These greens! Such oxygen is gold for lungs.
As Northerners, we rush outdoors to sing,
To revel in the sun our skin has missed
We happily observe the birds trav'ling,
Bright promises enclosed in their twig fists.
     And just as we put back mittens and hats,
     We wake to white—more snow—yes, just like that.

-- by moi

Originally written for my students after a lively sonnet lesson.
Originally published in The Saint Cloud Times April 2008 Spring Poetry feature.

March 20, 2011

For My Mother

Memory 1: The view from my child's seat on the back of your bike as you pedaled us around Lake Ripley. It was dusk in mid-summer. Children were emerging from the lake reluctantly, water dripping from their hands and chins, sand coating their feet. We stopped to watch them. You turned back to recheck my buckles, to feed me small carrots, to swipe my hair behind my ears. "You doing okay?" I was. I remember the pink of the light.

Memory 2: Lake Shetek this time. I am older, maybe five. You and I are floating on the water upon a wide yellow air mattress. There is a heavy brick below us with a rope wrapped around it that you've tied to your big toe: an anchor, so we don't float in or float off or get too close to the reeds. There are speed boats, the hollers of skiers, the roar of cousins playing pick-up baseball on the street. But most importantly--I can tell--there is us, our conversation about what will happen next to Laura. We have been reading Little House on the Prairie. You have been reading to me. Laura's voice is your own.

Memory 3: The Badlands. The Black Hills. Harney Peak. Lake Sylvan. We have taken a family vacation to where you and Dad lived before my brother and I were born. Dad pulls the car over to the side of the road. "I can't believe it, how low the water is," you say, and we wonder, How does she know, because we cannot understand your life without us in it, not really. We only see the way you look at our father, sense that for a moment, we are gone. 

Memory 4: It is the spring of my graduation year. We are in the backyard, you kneeling in the garden, me in a lawn chair, a book on my lap. I look up, the word wander on my tongue, to find you watching me. "Big changes ahead," you say. The crab apple tree behind you is a dazzle of blossoms, and when the wind rises up, the petals fall like fingerprints on your back. "I'll be okay," I say, and as the pink of your cheeks glow with equal parts sadness and pride, I know this is true because of you.  

Happy Birthday, Mom!

March 18, 2011

Pretty Great

I had hoped to make him here (because I thought he'd enjoy quiet) or here (because I knew he'd find friends) or here (because on a girl's weekend it's always good to have a mascot). But these wintery events all passed without me turning snow into something resembling a round-bellied man. When forecasts predicted a week of all 40s and 50s, I knew my chances of completing #15 on my Thirty Before Thirty list were melting away quick.

So, with the help of some grizzled goldenrod, five hard hollow pods broken from still-standing stems, one big burly plant resembling a five-pronged pitchfork, and of course a stubby old carrot, this happened:

Ron Clark! Somehow, between rolling small snowballs into giant ones and turning earth parts into a cardigan, that is what we named him. And I say we because in the end it was my husband who called on his drive home and said, "Em, put your boots on." Hubs who made the cardigan, placed with such precision you would have thought him a tailor. And since we're both busy, him especially, and--really--who, under twelve, makes a snowman on a Monday night?--the fact that he is this good of a flesh-and-blood man is perhaps the most impressive thing of all.
He's pretty great, huh? 

March 13, 2011

Dear Minnesota --

Dear Minnesota --

I love you. I do. You are wide and tall and varied and beautiful and full of landscapes and corners that draw me in and whirl me out and leave me dizzy and heady and full of adulations.

But--can I just be honest, here? I'm really not a fan of all this dirt.

I like soil. I even like mud puddles in the heart of spring. But this is not soil or mud, Minnesota; this is grainy and dull and creeping stuff. This is brown surrounding every bend, brown accosting every surface, a film beneath my nails I cannot see or scrape away yet ever feel seeping into my skin.


I know you can't help it. It's just who you are. We all have ugly phases. Remember middle school? But though I love you unconditionally, I must insist that this dinginess has reached it's limit (Okay, my limit. I'm being selfish, but it is me looking at you, MN, wanting--remember--to extol your virtues, so maybe help me out a bit?).  

If it's all right with you, I think it's time for either spring or another blizzard. You pick.

The Girl With The Wandering Eyes
(as in Costa Rica)

March 8, 2011

(I'd be fine with one more)


After midnight the blizzard howls itself out,
the wind sleeps, a tired lover.
Before bed, I think of you
and play the 
Meistersinger quintet
over and over, singing
along on all the parts,
dancing though the house
like a polar bear who thinks
it has joined the ballet.
You are in my arms, dancing too;
whirling from room to room;
frost crusted on the window
begins to glow like lit up faces.
My five fingers, now on fire
like these five voices singing,
imagine touching the skin
over your shoulders

-- By Bill Holm

March 3, 2011

Frozen Photos

Forgive me: I don't leave early enough in the morning. I am eager to get home to dinner at night. I don't stop. I don't slow the car, pull over, slip my feet into boots and traipse across iced savannahs. I have not captured these places with what we onced called film. 

But there are several images that I've seen this last month, and loved:

1) Fence poles, stark and gray against an afternoon sky, slices of shadow splicing the snow. They are straight and crooked and lonely. Yet brave. They remind me of thin children in a school yard lined up to jump rope.

2) Sand dunes that are snow dunes, Antarctic ridges that are Saharan ridges. Hills that rise up, their wide bodies tinged with blue, into a blue-white sky.

3) Thick snow on the roads. At 6:07 a.m--the morning black except for headlights and all this otherwordly visiting white--I think, We tell ourselves we have settled this land, cut through it cleanly from one city to the next--but we are all visitors. We are swimmers. It is easy enough to be moved.

And the one that haunts me most:

4) The three tall maple trees to the south of Highway 7, up high on the ridge line. They stand like sisters, bathed in early light, robed in gold. I look to them each morning for a sign. I'm not sure why. I glance at their branches, half-expecting to one day see an arm, a hand, a thousand fingers pointing me east or west.