I captured this video a few months ago while reading the late Irene McKinney’s last poetry collection, which I blogged about here. I intended to post this video back then, but at the time I found myself unable to say anything more than Hey, look at this beautiful thing.
Typical me. I am that person in the backseat always pointing out trees, saying things like Such gnarly branches, right? while you try to keep it on the road. I am your dinner companion who just can’t get over the crust on this bread. This crust! I am always making the quality of light an obstacle we must surmount before we can proceed to more important topics. Heaven help us if we happen upon any dilapidated buildings. See? That! Those! The! This! I know my companions must be noticing these things too, but are simply more adept than I am at saving their words for something more profound than mere pointing. I can’t help myself. If I catch one flicker of poignant light and shadow, I’m shoveling it in like popcorn and pushing the bucket toward you: Dig in! Dig in! Free refills! I say with my mouth full.
Little everyday beauties are always in season. It’s always the harvest. Maybe all this is a form of note-taking or journaling. I remark at what I’ve seen as if plucking it off the vine, canning it, and putting it up to jell or pickle or poem.
What I am really saying when I point inarticulately to the beautiful things is This is a metaphor, a slice of the Everything Pie. Please share it with me.
It’s late summer now. (I kid you not. At the grocery store this afternoon, I saw Halloween candy corn trying to edge out a bushel of real New Jersey sweet corn.) How did this happen? So soon. It feels like we just got here. We’re always on to the next thing, aren’t we? Have you ever unwrapped a tendril from whatever it has been clinging to and marveled at the way it holds its former shape, like a little green spring? I am that vine, and my whole life has been trained around the academic calendar—growing around and around, in pursuit of summer. To my mind, summer is the ultimate destination—the reward for a year’s worth of spinning around the sun. Summer is time out of time—or at least that’s what I think until fall’s shadow starts to edge in. This May, when I finished my PhD without having secured an academic job for the fall, I felt as though I had graduated into endless summer—a bottomless popcorn bucket of summer. I unwound and began to shovel it all in, but I could still sense the phantom shape of the school year; I was curious about how it would feel to experience, for the first time since I was five years old, late August as merely another month on the calendar and not the year’s great threshold.
And yet, in late summer, I got an academic job after all. (Thank goodness!) This time I’m the teacher, but August is August-as-I’ve-always-known-it yet again. In preparation to begin teaching again, I’m re-reading my favorite essays and deciding where to place them on the syllabus. Yesterday it was Eula Biss’s essay “No Man’s Land.” Biss weaves details about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer family with her own experiences of living in a gentrifying neighborhood, braiding those two strands into a kind of rope on which she descends beneath the surface of her underlying subject: fear, and how it determines where and how we live. It is a remarkable essay. It’s a dilapidated building bathed in late-afternoon light kind of essay.
Biss’s essay helped me to understand why I loved the Little House books as a girl, and how they shaped the way I see and move through the world. During the summer between first and second grade, I read the entire series. I vividly remember my mother bringing me the first book while tucking me into bed one night. I may have been unwilling to go to sleep, and the book was a kind of compromise. I took the deal, and here I am today—still reading. Those books not only taught me how to how to read, but also cast the mold for what I seek from both life and literature; Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books sculpted the trajectory of my longing. I tendriled around them.
In late August of 1988, I must have been nearing the end of the series. I vividly recall that feeling of anticipation. I still feel it when I near the end of a book or movie or any other experience that holds me in thrall. In fact, I can conjure that feeling right now—the feeling of the end approaching me, even as turn the pages toward it, hungrier and hungrier for more of the story, to be closer and closer to the characters, even though the closer I get to them, the closer I am to the end of our time together, a time I want to never end. That summer, Laura was my best friend, if not an imagined shadow of my own self.
Biss’s essay explains something I’d forgotten about the Little House books—how much the Ingalls family’s life was hemmed in by fear. While I remember Laura as Pa’s brave little “Half Pint,” Biss attends to how frontier life was limned in fear for folks like the Ingalls. Ma and Pa were terrified—and their awareness of danger helped to keep them alive. Anything beyond the light from their lamps was the unknown. Many of the books’ titles refer to different places that the Ingalls family lived—and many of their moves from place to place were motivated by fear and the pursuit of safety and stability. As I re-read “No Mans’ Land,” I realized that the one constant throughout the entire Little House series is departure—anticipation, shock, and shadow of leaving everything one knows for everything one doesn’t. The cutting edge where a beginning meets an ending. I felt the turmoil of these departures along with Laura, and I believe the Little House books must have honed, if not instilled, my own personal tendency to feel tender toward departure, loss, and change. I’ve never rushed headlong into change. I’ve always cherished the last few moments of any experience—the sense of the tide clinging to the shore even as the moon pulls it out. As a kid, I never even rushed through my Halloween candy, because I wanted to make it last, and it should be no surprise that I chose to believe in all of childhood’s supernatural figures for longer than I truly did believe deep down inside. The heart secrets embers from the mind, feeds them with little secret breaths. I see now that the act of clinging to the pieces of what I’ve loved—white knuckles, sweaty palms—is a means of expressing that love.
Unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was never really in the position of “the new girl” until I moved to Ohio for graduate school, but I have always identified with the new girl. I always feel a little displaced inside, never in the center of anything. The center seems easier, but is an impossible state for me. I feel at home in the fringes. And so, while I’m always longing for the pure essence of summer, I more often find myself in late August—the bittersweet end of summer, a breeze coming in through the heavy green leaves outside my window to overturn the pages heaped on my desk.
So—back to the video. I thought I was late in sharing it, but now I realize I am right on time. Late summer. If you look closely, you can see that this remarkable dance of light, shadow, and marigolds is happening upon “Darkness Poem”—a poem in the summer solstice-center of McKinney’s book, and the poem from which the book’s title is drawn. In the poem, McKinney answers her own question—“No, I haven’t had enough darkness”—and then catalogs all the other things, experiences, and feelings for which she remains ravenous.
Late summer. Late is a prefix we attach to someone’s name after they have died, when we are speaking about who they were in life. And we add a definite article—the—on top of all that. A way to grapple with the distance, I suppose. The late Irene McKinney. But, back then, she was right on time. In the moment. Where we are now.
Did you feel that? Do you feel the world turning?