Five a.m. The trees are silhouettes against the lightening emptiness behind them. The tree guy worked until 10 last night, felling and grinding popples, and now at last, as we’ve imagined for so long, the big, old silver maple southeast of the farmhouse stands almost alone (work not done yet), apart, in all its healthy, aging majesty. The dog and I go out in the gloaming (shouldn't morning as well as evening be describable with that word, as 'crepuscular' can describe either?) to experienced our changed reality. I look and look and feel the breeze on my arms and face, and she sniffs and sniffs.
Back on the porch to finish a book left open the night before, and after its satisfying last page the coffee is ready. But already it is 5:40! Soon to be six o’clock! This time goes too fast.
These are the hours I like most, when everyone is asleep and the place is mine and I can move from my own dream life to the life of writing.
- Mary Gordon, Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity
While hers is the epitome of city dwelling, and my own life is deeply rural, many of her passages speak to me of my own way of being-in-the-world, and none more than her sense of mornings, alone: “It is my time – and there is never enough of it....”
For me, this time is not exclusively for writing (although
sometimes for stretches of time it is so), however; the few brief weeks of heaven we call summer in northern Michigan make of morning very much a time for me to be immersed in outdoor air, in the song sparrow’s sleepy, happy greeting of the day, the raucous scolding of distant crows, the restless, busy fluttering of leaves, dew on the grass, my dog’s contentment matching my own as the two of us, eager sponges, breathe deeply and soak up and absorb our surroundings until we are saturated and then go on taking in more, overflowing with well being.
Mary Gordon’s “here,” the place for which she feels so much gratitude over being able to call it home, is a New York apartment. Mine is a scant, irregular, near-five-acre piece of ground in northern Michigan. But like Gordon, coming at last to her urban, academic life, I feel here that this is “the here that was always the here for me.”
I am not a second- or third- or fourth-generation native on this land, do not possess a family name in common with my neighbors, and have no ancestors’ graves to visit up at nearby St. Wenceslaus. Whatever feelings attach the established old families to their land I will never know firsthand. But their attachment is only possible because someone, once, came from somewhere else, stopped here, and decided to make this home. I am not forgetting Native Americans when I say this, either, many of whom came up along the shore of the Lake from southern Michigan or down from Canada to Leelanau. I feel personally, intimately, rooted here. Isn’t this what a feeling for home is? And is my feeling less than anyone else’s? For me it is an absolute, as all experience is absolute (“personal experience” a redundancy), not measurable against that of another person. My strawberries are no less sweet, my meadow no less lovely, my shade in summer no less refreshing, my snow in winter no less deep or cold, my back no less tired after mowing or shoveling.
Strawberries from my garden
The greatest portion of my summer day, however, is spent indoors, in town, at my bookstore. I see many people during the day – bookstore customers usually delightful, often fascinating – and in front of my building there is constant street traffic and lots of noise and dust. In the close quarters of a small village, moreover, interests at times conflict, and conflict resolution is not always quick or easy. “What do you think of _____________?” I am often asked, the subject filling the blank changing from one week or month or year to the next.
The truth is that I only think about _____________ when my attention is forcibly directed to it, and even then I often do so reluctantly and have little or nothing to say about it. In general, when I’m at work I’m thinking much more about selling books – also about reading and writing about books, as well as about finding time for reading and writing and visiting with friends, about what to fix for dinner and how to make time for outdoor projects and about paying bills. I think about bricks to lay and jam to make at home and laundry that’s never done for long, and I long for chickens, obsess over keeping autumn olive at bay, keep meaning to order a peening jig and hammer, and daydream of mowing my meadow with a scythe – all home matters to which my workday mind is drawn again and again, even while I’m in my bookstore. Home and bookstore – both rewarding, both demanding.
What do I think of _____________? Living out in the country, as I do, means doing without the conveniences of town, so why should I take on the psychological burdens of village life, too? “Because you have a business,” I’m told. But how does being drawn into discussion of controversies do my business any good? Argument and gossip pay no bills and buy no groceries. I’m not on salary, and neither do I get paid by the hour, so I must save my breath to cool my porridge.
Am I an “outsider,” in the village and/or in the country? The question only arises for me in town, never in my old house, never outdoors, never on my home ground.
Thunder in the distance as the wind picks up.... At six-thirty a driving rain arrives. I love the sound of it on the metal porch roof, even though I have to close the window on the south end of the porch so it won’t blow in. The storm increases my sense of being sheltered and protected by the old house....
Gradually the pounding slows to pattering. The rain has given me the gift of time this morning, as I won’t need to water gardens now for at least 24 hours. And if more rain comes and our evening with friends tonight must be on the porch instead of outdoors, so be it. Being together will be good either way.
The morning is (was, as I wrote this earlier) still quiet, still mine. And that’s good, too. Pen and paper – that is, Staedtler pigment liner, bought for drawing, and cheap, spiralbound, “college ruled” notebook. Do students take notes any more? How, if the younger generation can’t write cursive? “Write cursive” – that looks and sounds awkward. Well, but – pen and paper, coffee, rain on roof, dog at my feet, David sleeping in another corner of the house. I am here, and I am at home.
And that, dear new friend out on the Atlantic, is how I feel about that.