Listening to Landscape

When I went to dinner, I thought the only souvenir I'd bring home was this mask.

When I went to dinner, I thought the only souvenir I’d bring home was this mask.

When you all saw me last, I’d recently moved. Hours before I came to Vermont, I found and packed five skorts (one of them you never saw because its zipper was broken beyond repair but I brought it anyway as a sort of safety skort, I guess) and a few t-shirts and I told you I’d left my new house stuffed with unpacked boxes.

You will be relieved to know that we have settled in, for the most part. I have been on the move most of the time since July. Three out of the four people in my house started school in late August. I think I found some of my clothing (other than skorts) in September. Then, in October, I released a book and traveled and all of that exciting stuff, so it’s still taken a while for me to really look around my new town. For many months, I knew only the back deck (where I would smoke my vile cigarettes), the view of my tiny yard, my garage, and my strange neighbor who recently retired and who has absolutely nothing—I mean nothing—to do all day long.

But since I quit smoking, I no longer go outside. I mean, I go, but not to sit and notice things. Now I notice things from inside. Sounds, mostly. I hear my new landscape.

We live on a quiet street just a block and a half from Main Street USA. Sometimes there are Harley Davidson motorcycles. Sometimes (more often) there are Amish horses and buggies. My neighbors are pleasant. The ones right next door have a baby and I can hear them on the front porch playing with him, making those baby-love-sounds that no adult would make without a baby in the scene. The other neighbor—the retired one—picks up leaves one by one now that autumn is here and his wife yells at him that he’s stupid trying to clean up the yard in the wind.

A year ago, I was living in the middle of fifty acres of secluded woodland. In autumn, there would be rogue hunters, sometimes drunk. One time, a man shot a doe a mere twelve feet from my house where I was feeding my baby and I walked outside in polar bear pajamas and yelled at him even though he was holding a shotgun.

A year ago, my neighbors—ones I couldn’t see, but ones I could hear—would fire their semi-automatic weapons for hours. When they did so, on the morning after the Sandy Hook school massacre, I experienced something profound and startling. I experienced deep, primal fear. Irrational or not, I shook. I fought a strong urge to take my two daughters into the basement and hide there until my husband came home. All from sounds and memories.

It was that day that gave birth to the book I am writing now. It was that landscape that made it possible—neighbors I never saw, but could hear. It is a connection to my own experience with guns—from being good with a rifle at age twelve to being robbed at gunpoint at age twenty four—that informs this book as I write it.

Who knows what will come from hearing horses and buggies all day? Who knows what will come from the bored neighbor? The baby next door? The annoying twit across the road who gets up at 6:30 on Saturday mornings to blow his leaves into a pile before everyone else does?

I started to write a new book today. I didn’t mean to. It was more of an emetic than anything.

Last night I took my family out to dinner. It was the last night of Día de Muertos and we are a family who celebrates. Before the meal arrived, I went to the bathroom with my six-year-old. One stall was out of order and had a sign sloppily taped to the door. The other stall was empty and large, so we went into that one together. As my daughter peed and I waited, we heard the bathroom door open and close and someone enter with what sounded like a slightly unhappy (but not screaming) toddler. Then things went bad.

I stood in the stall, eyes locked with my daughter’s, as we heard the violent scolding and four hard slaps and then heard the little girl, no older than two, go still with fear. They left as soon as they came in. It probably took all of twenty seconds.

I wanted to say something or do something or be something, but it all went so fast and by the time they left, all I could do was sit down to pee, peek out to make sure they weren’t there anymore and then hug my daughter.

My daughter searched for something to say. “Kids in my reading group get spanked sometimes. We talked about it when a kid in a book got spanked.”

I said to her, “I will never, ever hit you.”

She said, “I know.”

Landscape—where we are and what surrounds us, both physical and non-physical—is important to every story. While I noticed and will remember each chipping piece of grout in that bathroom and the flickering fluorescent bulb that seemed to switch from pink to green and to pink again, I will remember the sound of those slaps most vividly. And I will remember how much tighter my daughter squeezed my hand on our walk back to the table compared to when we’d walked away.


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3 responses to “Listening to Landscape

  1. Kathy Quimby

    This post has flickered in and out of my mind all day. Only now did I connect it with a conversation we had with my sister-in-law the last time we saw them. She and her family live in Connecticut, so it wasn’t unreasonable for the the conversation to somehow get around to the topic of having someone armed in every school, whether it was a security officer or some member of staff. She is adamantly opposed, as she is opposed to guns for any reason. As someone who grew up eating venison and partridge (aka ruffed grouse), I find myself agreeing with her on some points and not on others, but when she started saying that children should feel as safe in school as they feel in their own homes, I found myself almost speechless. I know of enough children for whom school was a safer place than home to suspect that the number of children for whom that is true is significant.

    Security. A loaded (locked and loaded?) word.

    But hurrah that your child’s reading group feels comfortable enough with each other to discuss such things, to know that they are not alone.

    • Thank you for your comment!
      I find it interesting that the first comment on this post has a slight political slant, but I know you didn’t mean it to, Kathy! Frankly, as a victim of gun crime, I can’t even look at a gun without equating it with violence (what else is it really for?) and I have my own PTSD issue from my experience, which is what inspired the book I’m working on now.
      I’ve also eaten a lot of venison.
      And I also know many kids who didn’t feel safe at home, but that has very little to do with guns.
      But anyway.

      Chris Crutcher recently said, “When big people hit little people it says nothing about little people. It says everything about big people.”

      I love that quote.

  2. Jennifer Cary Diers

    This post reminded me of an event I witnessed in a grocery store recently.

    A mother was trying to wrangle two very bored, very frustrated little boys through the aisles. One was small enough to sit in the cart seat, and the other was walking alongside. Running alongside. Running everywhere BUT alongside. And making loud, funny noises that were intended to make his littler brother scream with laughter. Which they did. I actually thought it was pretty adorable, but I might have been alone in my assessment.

    After repeated attempts to make the Runner stay in one place, holding onto the cart, the Mother was looking very frazzled. She hadn’t raised her voice (much) but she was clearly losing it. Sitter was howling and Runner was pulling things off the shelves. I wanted to buy that Mother a candy bar or something.

    That was the moment that an older woman–maybe 65 years old?–chose to grab a can away from Runner, a little too forcefully. The woman then leaned over him like, I imagine, a Big Scary Grandma Monster would. She said, in a tone which was almost yelling, “What’s wrong with you? You get your butt over by that cart before I whup you!”

    For me, time stopped. I think my mouth actually hung open. BSGM was staring with such ferocity at little Runner, and Sitter stuffed his whole fist into his mouth, and the look on the Mother’s face was… awful. So awful.

    I don’t know what happened to BSGM that day, or in her history, that would compel her to threaten violence against a stranger’s child. The Mother practically ran out of the aisle, with both kids, and I don’t know whether she checked out or left the store or… I don’t know. I’m sure it seemed so obvious, so necessary, to BSGM at the time. I regret that I did nothing, said nothing, but I think the aisle-wide disapproval hung thick enough in the air. Or maybe I imagined it, to let myself off the hook.

    In some ways, what happened was minor. But in most ways, it was terrible. The problem with violence is that it makes you feel powerful. It becomes an addiction. Can you imagine growing up with a mom who thinks it’s appropriate to threaten other people’s children? How little must it take to set her off? What must life have been like in her home? Sad fodder.

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