Andes Mint #29: "This that I see now."

At the beginning of the Minneapolis summer (qualified as “Minneapolis” summer because this year it began about three weeks ago), I decided to re-read my favorite and most influential books from childhood. The ones I hadn’t already re-read more than once, that is, including:

1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. 2. My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. 3. Swiss Family Robinson, by Johan Wyss. 4. The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. 5. Bambi, by Felix Salten. 6. So Big, by Edna Ferber. 7. How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn.

My sister Oatie was the inspiration behind this decision. She reads an enormous amount and she has excellent taste, and a year or so ago she told me that she re-reads A Tree Grows in Brooklyn every year.

I thought about that for a while, this re-reading of our favorite childhood book. I pictured Oatie lying on the couch in her living room in New Hampshire, absorbed in the story of Francie’s life. She must know it perfectly by now. I admired that.

I didn’t know how she had the guts to do it, though, because every time I have thought about that book, all these years between elementary school and now, my heart has felt cracked.

Doesn’t something bad happen to Francie in that book? Something really bad? That was all I could come up with, for the way the words a tree grows in Brooklyn made my heart hurt.

But if my sister Oatie, who has a heart the texture of a melted marshmallow, could read it every single summer, then so could I. I went to Magers & Quinn and bought a new copy, the one you see relegated to the bottom of this page because, per usual, I couldn’t figure out how to make it smaller.

It took me a while to get through the book, partly because I’m a slowish reader and partly because I kept turning down the corners of pages so that I could go back and copy out the beautiful passages that made me keep stopping. This is something I do with all the books I most love, and then I never do go back and copy out the passages, and that is why my bookshelves are filled with books that have turned-down pages. Good intentions, good intentions.

I copied out this, though, in Francie’s voice.

The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn’t held it tighter when you had it every day.

What had Granma Mary Rommely said? “To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”

I read and re-read those passages. To look at everything, and everyone, as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time.

That little guy to the left, the one in my arms, is my baby nephew. He’s a few weeks old now, just easing himself into this world. Sometimes he catches his breath the way that newborns do, as if he can’t quite remember how to take that next one.

He will stare at a scrap of white paper with black lines on it for minutes and minutes at a time, utterly absorbed. Everything about the world is new to him.

For one moment in time, my nephew was the youngest person in the entire world.

I think about that sometimes, when I walk the sidewalks of the city. I look at the people scurrying or sauntering or drooping by, and I think: Everyone was once someone’s baby.

To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time.

Let me look upon you, elderly woman carefully holding your one-pound weights and stepping up one step and down again, up one step and down again, there in the stairwell of the Y, as if this is the last time I will ever see you. Let me smile at you as I duck around the corner on my way to the weight room.

Handsome man that I always hope to see when I walk into the weight room, if this is the last time I will ever see you, let our eyes meet and let me admire you even more than usual today.

Man at the front desk who swipes my card, let me look at you as I leave, and ask about that book you’re reading, and wish you a good day in this beautiful weather, because what if this is the last time I will behold you?

Walking Man, as my daughters and I call you, oh Walking Man whom I have watched walking the streets of this city for 20 and more years, only in the last three years slowing down, let me imprint on my eyes the sight of you sitting now, on that bench on Hennepin, you with your hands folded on your lap and your feet in their brown shoes planted on the sidewalk and your slow nod when our eyes meet as I pass, for this may be the last time.

Beautiful girl with the tumble of dark curls spilling down your back, those green eyes of yours, let me hug you before you go upstairs to pack up your clothes, because. . . no. No, no, no. Never. For you, green-eyed girl, I will look upon you as though I were seeing you for the first time.

This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn’t held it tighter when you had it every day.

It took me a while, but I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I used to be afraid to re-read the books I loved so much when I was a kid, because I figured that through my grownup eyes, I would think they were terribly written.

They’re not. They’re beautiful. They’re in my bones. It was partly through those books that I learned how to see the world. How to translate what I saw and how I felt into words on a page.

The terrible thing that I was sure had happened to Francie, the thing that I couldn’t remember but was so afraid of re-reading? Nothing specific. Nothing that doesn’t happen to everyone: heartbreak, courage, sorrow, love, loss.

She was born and she lived, is all.

Andes Mint #24: The World Offers Itself to You

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,” says poet Mary Oliver, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting. . .” I was 18 when my parents drove me over from the Adirondacks and delivered me and my belongings to college. I remember watching them drive off in their yellow station wagon. It seemed to me that, although I hadn’t known it until just that moment, my life had broken open. As if anything was possible.

What do I remember of those years? Moments, one after another, held inside as if all time is one time, and we are all still together, there on that beautiful hill.

I remember asking my friend Tom, late one night at a party, “How can you fling yourself off that tower?” For years I, the non-skier, had admired ski jumpers, how they arced their bodies into the unseen air.

“It’s no big deal,” he said. We were sitting side by side in two large green chairs. “The air is soft. It’s like a pillow. It cushions you. You just go into your tuck and do it.”

What he didn’t tell me was that the “cushion” was there and then not there, and it could move you all over the place, depending on air pockets and wind gusts. I know that now, but what I have always gone back to is that first, long ago comment: You just go into your tuck and do it.

I remember stretching to Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver before heading out on late afternoon runs. I remember Charlie R’s sweet smile as I ran past him one day near Hillcrest. I remember smiling back. Out of all those days and years of running, why that one fall day, why Charlie alone, walking through falling maple leaves turned to flame? But there it is, a memory like a photograph.

And I remember sitting in a Social Anthropology class, listening to others discuss the assigned readings, through which I had dutifully plowed (50 pages read = one Andes mint bought at the Crest Room, prior to the night’s studying). I remember Mima N. shooting her hand up and asking a brilliant question. I remember thinking, “How did she even think up that question?” It was clear to me that my critical thinking skills were far behind. But anything was possible, wasn’t it? Maybe someday I, too, could think up, if not a great answer, at least a great question.

I remember that on Sundays, the New York Times was delivered to the door of the girls who roomed across the hall from me sophomore year. I remember thinking, I’ve never even read the New York Times. I remember thinking, Someday, when I’m a real grownup, I’m going to have the New York Times delivered to my door.

I remember visiting my friend Absalom on the third floor of our dorm and noting that it was possible to turn one’s dorm room into a shrine to John Prine, cigarettes, and thrift store army jackets. I remember redecorating Peter C’s room with a small collection of moth-eaten fox stoles and four plastic beer mugs.

I remember driving late one night, miles and miles in the darkness, Steve K. behind the wheel, Greg M. riding shotgun, me in the backseat wishing Steve would give me another square of his Cadbury Fruit ‘n Nut. The car was quiet, and Steve beat his hand against the steering wheel to a song inside him. Where were we going? Did we know?

I remember emerging from the underbelly of Sunderland Language Center one winter night when the stars above were like diamonds scattered on black velvet. My mind rang with the cadence of Chinese voices on the Chinese tapes I had spent hours listening to. Suddenly, all around me like an invisible chorus, came the sound of cheering. It rose out of the snow and the woods and the dorms and the town, and I stood there in the cold, filled with wonder. We had just won the U.S.-USSR Olympic hockey game, but I didn’t know that. It seemed only that anything was possible. That even the mountains, if they wanted to, could sing.

I remember standing in line at Security, waiting for my i.d. card on that very first day, behind a girl with honey-colored hair and hiking boots laced with red laces. Now that is cool, I thought. If only I had the imagination to lace my hiking boots with red laces.

“Can you tell me where Stewart Dorm is?” I said to this girl. I did not tell her how much I admired her red laces. That would come years later.

“I’m heading there myself,” she said. “My name’s Ellen.”

I didn’t know then that from that day on, three decades now and counting, each of us would be the voice and the laughter that the other longs to hear. That we would see each other through hardships we couldn’t have then imagined. That if not all things are, in the end, possible, they are at least bearable, if you have a best friend.

I remember graduation day, crutching across the stage with a broken leg,  crying and crying and crying, because I did not want to graduate. I wanted to stay in that shining place forever.

Now here I am, all these years later, and I’m thinking about Neil Young, who wrote, “All my changes were there.” Not all of them. But that was the place where I lived all those moments. That place was the pivot for me, the place where I first turned around and glimpsed the wide horizons of the world. In some ways, I’m still there.

Like Tom said, the cushion might be there and it might not, and gusts of wind might move you all over the place. But you go into your tuck anyway, and you aim yourself into the future.

Andes Mint #23: Synesthesia

This mint is adapted from one in the archives, because at around one last night I realized that it was no longer dark-gray Monday but mustardy-chamois Tuesday, and I started thinking about synethesia all over again.

From a question in Padgett Powell’s book of questions: “If you could assign colors to the days of the week, what color would you assign Tuesday?”

This is an odd question. It implies that you – anyone – have a choice in Tuesday’s color, when in fact you don’t. At least, in your world you don’t.

Tuesday comes with its own color, as do all the days of the week.  Tuesday is a muted mustard-dun, solid color, no pattern. There’s a smooth feel to the color of Tuesday, like old chamois.

Wednesday? A clear blue. Slightly darker than robin’s egg, but on the bright light spectrum of blue. No navy, no dark. Another smooth-textured day.

Thursday is dark, similar to the ocean on a cloudy day. It’s a changeable color within that narrow realm. It can shift from dark gray to forest green, and there’s sometimes a dark honeycomb lace pattern within those dark shades. There can also be a bar of metal in Thursday, a rounded bar that occasionally emerges from within the dark, silent colors. Thursday is a beautiful day. It’s your favorite day of the week.

Friday is a patterned green, a mix of greens: the green of maple leaves in mid-summer and also the green of those leaves when darkened by rain. The pattern that shifts on the surface of Friday is the same sort of leafy light that plays across your skin when you’re lying in your treehouse. Friday is shades of green with shadows.

Saturday is gray-blue, light and porous, especially Saturday mornings. As the day wears on, Saturday darkens in shade but never solidifies; it is a day that retains its foaminess.

Sunday? Yellow, of course, although a yellow that doesn’t take its shade from the sun of its namesake. Sunday is an unchanging shade, a buttery yellow but a shade less dense than implied by the word ‘buttery.’ Sunday is an evaporating sort of day and so is its color.

Monday is dark gray but see-through. Monday is a color like looking through a fine-mesh screen window. Monday is an early color day and it stays dark screen gray until midnight, when it turns into Tuesday, and the chamois mustard-dun returns.

These are the way the days of the week appear to you. They’ve appeared this way all your life, each with its own color and texture and solid or diffuse light and patterns. You always assumed that everyone lived their days out with the same sense of color and texture, just the way that others see all the words spoken around them scrolling across the bottom of the movie screen in their brains, but guess what? Not everyone does. Strange.

Andes Mint #22: Off the grid dabblement

You’re the keeper of a tiny house on a hill in the woods in Vermont. The house is one room, 11′ x 19′, with a tiny sleeping loft and a tiny porch.

At first there was just land. Over the years –quite a few them at this point– you added electricity, tunneled up in a pipe from a pole down the dirt road. And a well, dug way down into the Vermont rock. There’s no plumbing, but there’s a pump. There’s also an outhouse. The outhouse has no door, but when you’re in it you’re looking out at the pine woods and a creek and a bluff rising above it, so . . . no complaints.

Then the tiny house came into being, first in the form of a kit that included lumber and a tin roof and insulation, nails even, which you bought off eBay. Some friends and you framed it up over four days in late fall and another carpenter friend finished the interior over the long Vermont winter, snowshoeing in and out because the dirt road isn’t plowed in winter.

When you’re at the tiny house you divide your time between writing –you can sit on the porch and all you see are white pines and deer and squirrels and wild turkeys and once in a while even a bear– and hiking and making things out of rocks and dirt and wood.

The tiny house could easily be off the grid except for the fact that you’re completely dependent on electricity in order to write. Solar panels are a possibility but they’re way too expensive.

Nevertheless, you play around with off the grid sorts of experiments. One is a graywater filtration system. Graywater is water that’s been used for things like showers and washing dishes. (Blackwater is what comes out of toilets, but you don’t need to worry about that because of the aforementioned outhouse.)

You built your graywater irrigation system this summer, over the course of three days. If it looks just like a raised rock garden, that’s because it pretty much is.

Day One: Eye up the patch of dirt at the side of the cabin. Haul a whole bunch of flat rocks from the creekbed at the bottom of the hill up the hill to the cabin. That sentence makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. Those rocks are amazingly heavy, and prying them out of the creekbed is hard, and that hill is long, and your wheelbarrow is kind of rickety. Major labor, friends, major labor.

Day Two: Arrange all those rocks you hauled on Day One into a pretty, slightly irregular shape. Accept your friend’s offer of some extra topsoil and stand with him in the bed of the pickup tossing shovelfuls into the rock bed. Go to the hardware store and buy two lengths of corrugated pipe. Lay them into the garden bed and grade the dirt underneath so that they angle slightly downward. Test-drive the pipes by pouring several buckets of water through them to make sure that the water disperses evenly and doesn’t all cascade out the other end. Adjust grading as necessary.

Day Three: Go back to the hardware store and buy a bunch of peat moss. Cover the pipes with the peat moss and then take a shovel and do a haphazard job of mixing the topsoil with the peat moss. Dig the perennials your mother helped you divide from her garden out of the woods where you temporarily planted them three days ago. Arrange them in an attractive manner in the raised rock bed. Make sure you don’t try to plant them directly onto one of the pipes.

Et voila! Now you have a raised rock garden/graywater filtration system. Someday, maybe, you’ll have some sort of rudimentary plumbing inside the tiny house, and then you can let the graywater run out of a pipe and into the pipes now hidden in your garden. For now, you’ll empty your 5-gallon buckets of graywater into the garden, which would be a pretty sweet addition to the tiny house even if it didn’t serve a graywater filtration purpose.

Andes Mint #20: Haiku Friday!

Your friend Absalom
vows Haiku Friday! Feeling
lazy, so do you.

Did you manage to
write your chapters? Yes. Good girl.
Now you can go hike.

Tromp up the mountain,
tromp back down. Same mountain, same
tromp. Never gets old.

Stay back, rocks. Don’t roar
down just as I’m climbing up.
I don’t want to die.

Altitude brings stars.
Swimmy head. Laboring lungs.
Up and up and up.

Hard to write haiku
about the wind this high, the
way it blows so strong.

Or how other sound
fades. Come. Stand with me here, on
the roof of the world.

Here, the trees are thin.
Here, the sky lifts and stretches.
I could float away.

Andes Mint #17: What I learned from my buddy John Klossner in sixth-grade math class

Sixth grade math class. Miss Hughes stood at the front of the classroom. She was short, young and powerfully built, with a sarcastic sense of humor that you and most of the class appreciated.

You didn’t much like math, but you hadn’t yet come to loathe it, with “having skipped eighth grade math and therefore lost way too much ground to catch up later” being a synonym for loathing.

The classroom was laid out in straight rows of those desk-chair combinations that you still see in classrooms wherever you go. You sat near the back in one of them, with your friend John in the desk ahead of you. John was tall and lean and blonde. He still is.

Miss Hughes rolled her chalk in her hands and covered the blackboard with numbers. Worksheets were passed around. Math books were opened to designated pages. In memory, it was always fall in math class. Or spring. Sunlight slanting through the big windows on the far side of the room. Green grass beyond.

John propped his math book open vertically on his desk so that his sketchpad was hidden below it. The sketchpad was full of caricatures: people, animals, scenes near and far. He drew with a black pen and he hunched over his desk. From all directions except yours and the others right next to him, he looked deeply studious.

You used to admire his artwork so much, back then when you were eleven years old. How could he draw so effortlessly? All those sketches came directly out of his brain and transferred themselves to paper with a few quick strokes of his hand and that black pen.

From the time you first met him, in sixth grade, which is when three area elementary schools combined into one middle school and then one high school, he was always drawing. When you picture John back then, he is hunched over his desk, tall body crammed into a too-small desk and chair. His blonde hair falls over one eye and the pen is moving over that blank page.

Everything he did with that pen was cool, from his drawings to his handwriting to the way he wrote phone numbers.

His initials: JK. But he used the back of the J to form the spine of the K, so that it was all one cool combo-letter. You admired that endlessly.

Phone numbers: He put dots, or slashes, between the area code and the exchange, e.g., 315/865.4734. That, too, you admired endlessly. In fact, you admired it so much that you stole it, then and there, and that’s how you’ve written down phone numbers ever since.

His drawings: He never stopped. Now he’s a New Yorker cartoonist. You still remember the day you opened up the most recent New Yorker to behold a cartoon that looked strangely familiar in style and substance. And there was his name, right there in the bottom of the panel.

What you learned from him, besides how to write down phone numbers: To prop your math book up on your desk and open a novel beneath it, so that once that math worksheet was filled out, you could read and read and read.

Like him, you were arrowing yourself in a single direction. We do best that which we love to do.

Andes Mint #15: Poem of the Week, by Jack Gilbert

Michiko Dead
– Jack Gilbert

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

For more information on Jack Gilbert, please click here:

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Andes Mint #12: Mother of Stars

Your mother woke you when you were a child, took your hand and pulled you from that little bed in that little room, led you downstairs and onto the cool cement porch.

“Look,” she said, and pointed to the heavens, pulsing green and blue and yellow. “It’s the northern lights.”

Tired, you leaned against the wooden porch post and held her hand. Angels dancing, is what it looked like to you. Silent angels.

* * *

Thirty and more years later you walked with your mother by a mighty river. You were in the lead. The two of you climbed a winding stair to a bridge and looked down at the wild water, churning its way south. You had just told your mother about something wild and churning inside yourself. She took your hand and held it.

“Everything will be okay,” she said. Her eyes filled but she looked at you steadily. “Everything will be all right.”

* * *

Years later, she told you that she had not been able to imagine how anything would possibly be all right.

“But I knew that’s what I had to say. That’s what you needed to hear.”

You’ve seen the northern lights many times since that night you were, what, four years old. But when you hear the phrase northern lights now, it is that first night you go back to. Your young mother, not yet 30, holding the hand of her little girl and pointing to something unearthly in the sky, something beyond any explanation that makes sense.

And for reasons you don’t understand, you also go back to that day by the wild water, her hand in yours, her voice calm, telling you that everything would be all right.


Andes Mint #10: Steamed clams and boiled new potatoes

You were a small girl and the state fair concessionaire stands sold pink puffs of spun sugar in paper cones, mesh bags of tiny boiled red potatoes salted and buttered, paper containers filled with fried fat-bellied clams glistening with oil. Paper cups filled with lemonade made from a squeezed lemon stirred up with sugar and cold water.

Decades later you stand in your kitchen making lemonade in just that way: A single lemon, big spoonful of sugar, water cold from the tap. Stir.

Back then, in those state fair days, you wanted the world.

I don’t want to be normal, you used to think. Once you said it to your mother –I don’t want to be normal— helpless to explain what you meant, searching for the right word but not able to find it, then or now.

You wanted the world, the world, the world, all its oceans and continents, its mountains and valleys. Now you imagine your footprints, all the places you’ve been, all the faces you’ve beheld, all the days and nights of marvels.

So why is it that it’s a single afternoon at the New York State Fair you go back to, a single memory, you and your father, that man you were so often so afraid of but not on that day, not on that one day when you sat on a red stool beside him, under a red awning there at the fair, eating the salty buttered baby red potatoes, the fried clams that he treated you to?

You were seven, he was 31, and when you think of your panicky desire not to be normal, why is this what you remember?

Because that was the whole world, you hear a voice say, the whole world is everywhere, in every moment.

Andes Mint #9: Show me a girl who's not afraid

You and your girls and their friend were in London, staying in a sunny room with four twin beds at the top of four long, narrow flights of carpeted stairs that one of you always stumbled on at least once.

You strolled Kensington Garden and had afternoon tea. You admired Princess Di’s dresses, still and quiet on mannequins behind guarded glass. Toured the Tower, anxious the entire time because you could feel the spirits of the unquiet dead ghosting around you.

You rode the double-decker buses, hopping on and hopping off. Ate bangers and mash. Took the tube. Fed fat pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Now you were sitting in a restaurant open to the sidewalk, the four of you at an oilcloth-covered table. There was too much mayonnaise on your sandwich. This had been happening all over London. Gobs of mayonnaise, white and thick and not Hellmann’s, oozing between bread. You wiped some of it off with your napkin.

“Too much mayonnaise yet again,” you said, and looked up to see three pairs of girl eyes fixed on you, three small girls frozen in fear.

“What is it?” you said, bewildered. “Girls, what’s wrong?”

“Is that man drunk?” one of them whispered, afraid to look at the man shouting and weaving on the sidewalk behind her.

You had barely noticed his drunken, ungainly walk, the repeated slur of his angry plea for a sandwich. Now you focused on him.

“Yes,” you said, “he is. But he won’t hurt you. You don’t need to worry. He’s just drunk.”

You went back to your sandwich and the ongoing mayonnaise issue. But when you glanced up a moment later, you saw that they were not eating. They couldn’t relax. Couldn’t shed their fear. They stared at you worriedly.

A great gulf appeared between you and them: you on one side of the table, three little girls on the other. It came over you that in their whole lives none of them had ever been the target of a drunken rage, ever been approached by a grown man with anything but tenderness.

Your heart twinged open and shut, open and shut, in pity and fear and love for the day that would come for each of them, no mother on the other side of the table to wrap her hands around theirs and tell them they were safe, that they had nothing to fear.