In early spring, after the thaw, we are walking up the path toward a worn boulder. My sister and I wear backpacks the size of box turtles, one red and one blue, and each one carries a water bottle the size of a salt shaker. We will rest -- at the end of the half mile -- on the rock outcrop, whre the woods open around the power lines, and some unseen neighbor keeps a rock garden of lichens. My mom tells me the ones topped with tiny scarlet knobs are called British Soldiers.
On the way home, we pass the dirt driveway full of mud puddles, good deep ones with soft sludgy bottoms, where we splash in warm weather. My parents believe in kids getting muddy. When we get home, we will all join my dad outside in the backyard with rakes, to clear the dead leaves out of the flower beds. The afternoon feels almost warm, and I take off my shoes for a few minutes, though the ground is still cold and wet. I like the feel of the wet earth between the myrtle leaves. And it is good to be outside all together, talking to each other while we work. It's good to see the leaves come away and the first green points underneath.
My rake is about as tall as our black half-lab dog.
What has inspired me, over time? Learning about WAM and Alchemy Initiative's 10x10 event, I think about the question. The first time I held my baby brother, the times he and I and my sister have cried on each other's shoulders, the way my mother kept the house clean and the laundry drying in the sun and baked bread around three kids and a job, the way my dad commuted every day and drove us to school and really came home on weekends, the countless times they answered my questions .
At my grandparents' farm, I sit in an arm chair, reading the small poem at the front of the Robert Frost book. I'm going out to clear the pasture spring. My dad, coming in, asks me what it's about. I say it has a field, and water, and a cow ... It's about farming.
He says, It's about friendship. I won't be gone long: You come too.
And I realize for the first time that writing can be about more than the words on the page. I may not know the word "metaphor," but I understand for the first time what it means. I sit looking out the window at the lilac bushes leaning over the terrace, and wonder what writers are saying.
My teacher hands me back a story (a story sprawling in my letter-reversing handwriting). She and I have a kind of steady fight going on, though I don't always understand it. She lets me do math with a small group of kids, but I'm bored a lot of the time (except when she makes pop culture references to "Dirty Dancing" that I don't understand, even though the whole class keeps singing the soundtrack) and I dayream. My friend Walter says I once read "Treasure Island" all through a spelling lesson and then aced the test. Maybe he's right. If I did, it's because I was so distracted by the book and Jim in the apple barrel, overhearing the mutiny, and then on the island, the painting of him hiding in a tree from the pirates, and meeting Ben Gunn who liked parmesan cheese, that I never heard her telling me we were starting.
So she yells at me a lot. But right now I'm looking at this story I wrote. It was kind of a cool assignment. We drew the people and place out of a hat, and I had to write a mystery about a magician and a fairy godmother in a grocery store. She says on the back, here in red, that it could be a children's book some day.
And I think -- you mean writing can be a job? Something you do for a living?
Summer, a bright August morning, my grandfather is talking. We are on the dock in Maine, near his cabin. He's a doctor in New Haven, and wherever I go with him, he talks to people. When we meet him for lunch at the hospital, he talks with the man who opens the gate for us at the prking lot, and the woman at the register, and the people in the halls. When he takes me to flea markets, he talks to the people at the stalls. He knows their names and their kids and where they went for the weekend. He told me once he thinks people are more interesting than books.
And here he knows about the lobster boats and fishing boats and wooden ships in the harbor. He can identify any sail boat on the horizon by the number of masts and the set of the sails and the shape of hull -- and he'd know how to say all that right. I'm just leaning over the rail now, smelling the salt water and watching the sea weed float around the pilings, listening to the gulls, and thinking that he's talking a lot.
It will be years before I know that because of him, I remember the men opening scallop shells by the dock that day, flipping the scallops off the shells and into a bucket with their knives -- and that I know, now, how many stories they can tell. And I will stand around in shops and orchards and museums and theaters, talking with people, too.
She is chestnut, red-brown, with a white blaze, and she is 10 years older than I am, and I am sitting on a rock in the sheep pasture, talking to her, trying to believe she's real: A gentle, elderly quarterhorse mare has come to live at the farm. We have been clearing trails to the pond all summer, and I never realized -- I can't remember not lovin horses, and I can ride a little (after a lot of lessons). The apples are just starting to turn red; it's the end of August now, and she came out of the blue with a western saddle way to big for me. Maybe I can ride her bareback in the field.
Over the next three summers, I will ride her through our woods, fall off and get back on.
I spend stretches away from home for the first time, and startle a deer out of the brush almost under her feet.
The phone slips in my hand. I hold the receiver and stare at the key pad. I think something I said may have hurt my high-school friend. I'm not sure, and the conversation is a blur, but something in the way she talked, it sounded as though she didn't hear what I thought I said, and I only have two real friends, and I've never hurt her before, not that I know. Maybe it's nothing. But I can't sit still, and I am staring at the phone, hearing my dad say the way to make a hard call is to dial the number, hearing my mom say there's always another side to every argument, knowing that I need to call so I can look them in the eye, and for Irene too. What if I did hurt her? She's always working and so am I, going out for ice cream is enough to make us punchy, so how often do we spend time with friends, and she's had a tough time this year ...
And from the sound of her voice on the phone, it helps that I called.
In college, in the first summer I've lived away from home, two of my room-mates have taken me up Petersburgh Pass to pick blueberries. The tall, red-headed boy visiting for the weekend leans against a birch tree. We have picked two containers full of wild berries and sat on the grassy headland, watching a thunerstorm come down the valley. He has visited often this summer, and he has just this week told me why, and I'd said I didn't think I could take a chance -- I've never been in love before -- but looking at his hand as it rests against the branch, I think maybe I'm wrong.
It's my first story for my first fiction workshop, and my grad school advisor has let me bring in part of this thing-that's-longer-than-a-story I've started working on. The lights seem unusually bright in this room against the New Hampshire night. He is lean and ironic and gentle and also blunt and has a way of getting even the people who aren't used to doing the work to do the work. He has just handed me an essay by Richard Russo about omniscient third-person, the kind of narrator who can see everything, like Jane Austen -- thanks to Professor Bell, I've written a thesis about her. As I read the essay, as he talks about the way a narrator builds a world, I think about what it really means for a writer to build a world -- plants, geography, morality. I think I'm writing a novel. I can do this.
The music is fast, light, running like meltwater. The fiddles and the dulcimer dash ahead, and I pick out what I can, a rote, a run, a phrase. I listen and try to build, gradually, the structure of the tune. I'm playing a recorer, and unlike the fiddles I have to breathe. I'm also less n practice than I use to be. In New Hampshire, when I learned to play by ear, I could make it to the jam every week.
It's harder here, but in the mountains, where I write and talk and ride and walk in the woods, I can also play music until I can't keep from dancing.