writing my way there

I walk every step of what used to be the camp, of what is now Kingsland Bay State Park. Then I sit in a white Adirondack chair with my pen and paper, looking across the bord de l’eau to the Adirondacks. I bring my vision in to the flag pole cemented to the ground. The cement tells me it’s the same one that was here when I arrived for the first time in July of 1970.

Why do I want to come back? For proof I was here. For clues as to who I used to be. I just want to stay long enough to…

I think this place has something to tell me.

I remember friends I made here, but I no longer keep up with them. It’s this place I miss, not the people who were here. Is it this place or the person I was here?

I was my best self here. I learned how to be myself here. It was my first time away from home for a long period of time–eight weeks that first summer, nine the others. Each summer I got closer to me.

The metal rings holding the flag clang against the pole. The water of Lake Champlain laps against the shore. People spread cloths on the picnic tables. A motor boat zooms past a large sail boat that seems to linger in the moment.

Writing about it again this morning for this post, I finally get it. It’s the continuous life. That’s why I’m here–to understand that the girl who was here in 1970 is the same woman who is here now. I’ve been tagging these posts all week with those words without seeing it.

As Mary Gordon wrote so well in The Rest of Life:

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her.  That she is the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.  That there is some line running through her body like a wick.  She is the same person who was once born.  All the things that happened to her happened to one person…’I’m trying to understand what it means to have had a life.’”

Final post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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proof

I ask the young park ranger if there are any cabins left. He says no, just the shed. But it’s not just the shed.

I take some photos of the outside of the cabin and head deeper into the woods toward the Point of Rocks. Something tells me to go back. The cabin is unlocked.

Inside—proof.

Names and dates in uneven scrawl. White paint against dark wood. The shed is Chalet A–the insides hollowed out to make room for rakes and saws, park signs and four wheelers.

Kim was here. Becky Howe was here. I remember her. Connie Bryan in 1965. If you want to find out about the summer of ’66, write to Mary Torras, Valley Road, New Canaan, CT. Leslie 1970. Nicole Browning I remember from 1970. Rose was here in 1971. Sandy in 1962. Sally Smith in 1966. Ceci Blewer in ’68. Vee Vee was here. Heather in 1973.

This discovery fills a part of the empty box I brought along today, letting me know that part of the reason I return is to find proof that I was in fact here, that what I remember is not just in my head, not just a dream I had, but something I can touch. And here it’s made of paint and wood—words that persist.

I am part of this place. This place is part of who I am.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. Another place that holds part of me is what used to be my grandparent’s house in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve returned there once as an adult and written this story about it.

I will write more on Saturday

3rd post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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hoping to discover

On Saturday, July 3rd, I took a break from lectures and readings and slid into my rented red Prius headed for the past. Even though Ferrisburg, Vermont, lies directly west from Montpelier, Google Maps directed me north to Burlington and then south.

In addition to my purse, I have coffee, water, camera, paper, and pen. I also seem to have some sort of invisible empty box with me that I hope to fill. I am going on a bear hunt and I want to catch a big one.

I wrote in my last post that Ecole Champlain, the French camp I attended in the ’70s now seemed “mysterious to me, as if it’s withholding secrets instead of holding memories.”

But, as is so often the case with my words, I didn’t get that right. Rather, what it seemed was as if the secret to something was there waiting for me to find it. In more words, the place was with me, not against me. In fact, I could almost see it closing its eyes, concentrating, in order to draw me back.

An old map shows the main entrance has always been the one I come in today, the one along the water that brings me in by MacDonough Lodge, now known as Hawley House. But that doesn’t seem right. I figure out that the buses that used to bring us to camp after we flew into Burlington on Mohawk Airlines always used the service entrance, coming in past the stables and down the long straight dirt road to the lodge.

That sweet smell is still here, a smell I’ve come across only a few times since camp. A breeze will go by and there it is. Ecole Champlain. Vermont. Once I smelled it from a bathroom air freshener. I ask the young park ranger. He says it’s the smell of cut hay. July is haying season in Vermont.

The dining hall is still here. The park ranger unlocks the door, and I enter the space where I once ate 7 grilled cheese sandwiches in a contest with a counselor.  Other than a portion of the floor having been replaced, it looks the same–only empty.

The distance between the dining hall and the lodge seems smaller, as I would expect. But as I start down the road to the stables, I’m surprised, and pleased somehow, that this still seems like a long walk.

I peer in the windows of the stables. Then I turn to face the space where the riding rings used to be. When I concentrate, I can see the one across the road where my horse took the jump and I didn’t. And then…the counselors used to call me Strawberry.

What will I discover during this visit? What do you hope to discover when you go back?

I will write more on Thursday

2nd post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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places that call us back

Among other places–and I’m trying to discover which ones–Ecole Champlain, the French camp in Vermont where I spent three summers–1970, 1971, 1972–is a place that now seems mysterious to me, as if it’s withholding secrets instead of holding memories.

In an interesting symmetry, I have now revisited three times as an adult–in October of 1996, in July of 2001, and a week ago, on July 3rd–this last time with more openness and intention than the other times. Curiously I think this openness comes from writing over the last six months without intention.

It’s as if there’s a surface that I’m trying to get below or a window I’m trying to see through.

In a recent post, Lindsey at A Design So Vast, wrote about the spaces that hold our memories:

Sometimes physical space seems so mute, so indifferent; it surprises me that somehow the important moments that have transpired in a place don’t remain there, echoing, animate, alive somehow. Maybe they do. Occasionally, in returning to a place that hosted an important moment in my life, I can feel that moment, hovering, bumping into me, invisible to the eye but not to the spirit.

During this next week, I hope to write more about my return to this place and why some places call to us from the past, why they draw us back as they do.

Do you have places that call you back?

1st post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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the second residency

My second residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts

Monday, 6/28/10: Up at 5:15 to fly from Columbus to Atlanta to Boston. I rent a car in Boston and drive 3 hours to Montpelier, arriving just in time for the last few minutes of the fifteen-minute Orientation. Then a meeting for 2nd semester students and at 4:30, the first lecture–“How We Know What’s Done is Done” by David Jauss: Anne Lamott says that finishing a work of art is like putting an octopus to bed. You pull up the covers and there goes a leg slipping out. At 8:00 Connie May Fowler, new faculty member, reads from her recently published novel.

Tuesday, 6/29/10 (my anniversary and my son’s birthday!): The first workshop–I signed up for a special workshop on publishing led by Domenic Stansberry. In addition to discussing manuscripts, we will each do a presentation on a literary publication. Doug Glover gives a lecture on “Symbols and Image Pattern.” Look at Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood to see how she uses the title image to unify and add layers of meaning to the novel. Follow an image each time it is mentioned to see what story emerges. When you write, let your characters have different responses to an image.

Wednesday, 6/30/10: A poetry lecture by Leslie Ullman on “Dialogue: Engine of the Practical and the Mysterious”–there can be a dialogue between the title and the body of the poem and dialogue between parts of a sentence by using phrases and commas, dialogue between the known parts of ourselves and the unknown, between will and imagination. Our second workshop with presentations on City Lights and McSweeney’s and a impromptu visit by VCFA graduate Vivian Dorsel, Editor of Upstreet.

Thursday, 7/1/10: A lecture by Philip Graham on how to bring everyday skills to writing. A wonderful lecture on landscape by graduating student Robin MacArthur, who is also half of the band Red Heart the Ticker–“our obsessions are key to our art.” Our faculty preference forms are due by 3:00–as a 2nd semester student I list 5. Advisers are posted at 7:30 on a bulletin board. So excited to be working with David Jauss this semester.

Friday, 7/2/10: In our third workshop, we’re discussing manuscripts. Graduating student Rachel Mullis gives an interesting lecture on the novella. Visiting poet Claudia Emerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Late Wife, reads six poems from that book, a brand new poem she wrote this week, several poems from her book, Figure Studies, and an amazing poem from her book in progress, “Secure the Shadows,” about the photos that used to be taken of the dead. The highlight of the reading was the finale when her husband joined her on stage with his guitar and they put her poem “Aftermath” to music, adding the captivating refrain–if I had a gun, I’d a shot her dead…

Saturday, 7/3/10: I take the day off and drive a little over an hour to Ferrisburg to visit the Kingsland Bay State Park, which used to be the French Camp Ecole Champlain. I was there the summers of 1970, 71, and 72.

Sunday, 7/4/10: An exciting lecture by new faculty member Trinie Dalton on “How Easy It Is to Enter” the abject, the place where meaning collapses. I meet with Dave Jauss to discuss my semester writing and reading. In our workshop, we hear presentations on Kore Press, Glimmer Train, The Paris Review, the Iowa Review. I talk about One Story. There’s a softball game (poets vs prose writers–prose wins!), a craft fair, BBQ on the Quad and later the Talent Show–Red Heart the Ticker plays two wonderful songs. Later Montpelier fireworks.

Monday, 7/5/10: Lectures by new faculty members: David Treuer on “The Art and Sense of Style” (“we want to make style work for us”) and Connie May Fowler on “The Necessary Evil Called Exposition” (“we want a balance between exposition and scene and we want to render exposition in exquisite detail”) We’ve been here a week and everyone (including me) is starting to wear down. The heat wave is not helping. Vermont does not do air-conditioning as well as Georgia does. At the student reading, I read part of my recently finished story, “The Blue Parrot.”

Tuesday, 7/6/10: Wonderful lecture by new faculty member Patrick Madden on “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things” (“I’m in love with essays”). More student lectures and faculty readings and another workshop.

Wednesday, 7/7/10: Last workshop with presentations on Esquire and Harper Collins. Signed semester study plans must be turned in before we leave. At graduation, after the graduate’s name is read, an excerpt of their work is also read. Lovely. It’s time to hit the road for Boston. I arrive in time to see the sun set over the harbor.

Here I sit in my hotel room, looking at Boston from the outside. I’ll be leaving for the airport in 30 minutes, and I’m happy to be heading home. Tomorrow, back to writing.

[you might also be interested in the first residency]

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framing the past

The summer I was thirteen I flew by myself to Vermont for seven weeks of camp. Somebody in our cabin had brought a record player, and it was there in the woods that I first heard the music of James Taylor and Carole King. After I got back home, I bought their albums. I still have them–although they now hang on a wall.

On Thursday night in Atlanta I heard Carole King and James Taylor live as part of their Troubadour Reunion. This round stage that rotates slowly was created specifically for the tour, with small tables for two around it–an attempt at recreating within an arena the nightclub atmosphere that King and Taylor played to in Los Angeles at the Troubadour.

The concert started a little late, around 8:15, but they were on stage almost 3 hours–until after 11–with only a 15 minute intermission. They played So Far Away, Smackwater Jack, Sweet Baby James, Country Road, Fire and Rain, Natural Woman, Up on the Roof, You’ve Got a Friend, I Feel the Earth Move….

from the first half

I’ve seen James Taylor in concert many times, and he was as wonderfully mellow as ever. I’d never seen Carole King before. She didn’t seem quite as comfortable, but the audience loved her. She’s small and wore stiletto-heeled boots the first half. She sang, played the piano and the guitar, and jumped around all over the stage. She sounds the same as ever–and Tapestry came out almost 40 years ago.

from the second half

There was something about seeing the two of them together that really took me back, that made me realize just how long ago (and far away) that cabin in Vermont was.

And speaking of years, Carole King is now 68 and I now have a new vision of what it means to be 68. James Taylor is a mere 62. And together they can rock the house down.

It’s not too late to see them in concert. Here are the remaining dates for the Troubadour Reunion. And look for them on The Today Show on June 18th.

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passion and patagonia

IMG_1718It’s often what grabs us when we are very little that becomes our passion. We can remember the moment.

For me, it was a morning in kindergarten. I must have been five. One of the kid’s mothers put on a puppet show–in French.  I was smitten. I traveled to France for the first time when I was ten. I went to a French camp in Vermont each summer for three years, beginning when I was 13. I studied in Quebec and lived in Paris. To this day, all things French sparkle for me. A year ago, I was sitting next to an 11-year-old Chinese boy, and I don’t know who was more excited as the plane flew by the Eiffel Tower.

When Bruce Chatwin was a little boy, his grandmother treasured a piece of brontosaurus. “This particular brontosaurus had lived in Patagonia…” And that was all it took for Bruce Chatwin.

In 1974, when he was 34, he set out for “the end of the world.” His book, In Patagonia, was published in 1977. It’s been called a travel book, travel writing, adventure writing, a travel journal, nonfiction. These days, it’s often referred to as memoir. The structure is 97 short sections. He appears to let himself be blown by the wind, and I often wondered why he was seeking out a certain place or person.  Then I got it–passion.

In section 14, he goes to visit “the poet.”

“The rain drummed on the tin roof. For the next two hours he was my Patagonia.”

Chatwin is a story-teller, and he gives us what we want–detailed-filled moments. The writing is strong, his sentences, in particular.

“The driver of a wool truck stopped and picked me up.  He wore a black shirt embroidered with pink roses and played Beethoven’s Fifth on his tape deck.”

“She picked her teeth with a thorn and laughed at the futility of existence.”

Patagonia is a geographic region–the tail of South America. It spreads over two countries–Chile and Argentina.  For more information on the book, check out The Quarterly Conversation‘s in-depth review of In Patagonia.

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