Tag Archives: landscape

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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Some Blackbird’s Wing

Feeding off of Leda’s post, lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about landscape and the various ways that it situates itself in our lives, and thus in our stories.  Almost all of my work has been set in the lands in which I either grew up or in which spent a considerable bit of time.

But at the moment, I’m working on a story that takes place far away from my hot, humid coastal plains, in a wintry, blizzardy sort of rocky land cut through by a swift and freezing river, and it’s gotten me just a bit rattled.  What do I know about ice and snow?  It’s not that I haven’t experienced it; rather, it’s that I don’t really know it at a visceral level, the kind of knowing that comes from winter after long winter of persistent cold.

What I’ve discovered is that the writing has made me homesick, and I find myself craving my natural habitat even though I’ve never left.

Does this even make sense?  Maybe?  I doubt it.

Anyways, one person who brings me back home every time is singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith.  Whenever I’m yearning for my beautiful Gulf Coast, I listen to her song, “Gulf Coast Highway,” and I’m there again, right there.

So, I’m sharing her with you, and at the same time sharing this bit of space on earth that I love so well.  Enjoy!

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by | September 13, 2013 · 1:00 am