Friday, June 08, 2012

Peace like a River

by writer in residence Adrienne Wagner

Four in the morning / I woke up from out of my dreams / nowhere to go but back to sleep / 
but I'm reconciled – Paul Simon

My first night in the Hill House was filled with the music of Paul Simon. I had forgotten how much I loved him and the grainy sound of a record player, the way it makes everything sound so urgent. 

Paul sang and I read in a cozy chair with an purple crocheted afghan tossed over my legs. The first book I had grabbed from the shelf above the fireplace was June Jordan's Kissing God Goodbye and it wasn't long before I fell in love with her too. 

And there amid the trees and birds of northern Michigan, time seemed to stand still, and then it turned backward. I was younger and my parents were both still living. 

This was an unexpected turn of events. 

I had originally planned to write the remaining poems for a nearly complete manuscript called Store Bought Saints. The poems were intended to explore the nexus of faith and sexuality as experienced in the moral dilemmas of life. The idea was to create a memorable cadence of petitions that offered a slow revelation of what it means to be faithful, to believe, and to love.

Love, “that soft forever begs for bees,” as Jordan wrote. I was buzzing, but not with any of the ideas I had intended to convey. Instead I wrote my first new poem in months, “Flowers for My Mother”: 

A bud vase with blue-eyed marys 
and yellow anemone begs forgiveness
on the kitchen table next to her picture.

This lilting centerpiece of apology could be a song 
spilling from the windows of a '61 Ford 
as it rolls down moonlit Buffalo streets

towards the two-story on Clay,
where my mother and her three sisters danced
with the Beatles, planned their trip to Birmingham.

But tonight Google Maps shows only a blurred face
belonging to a black man, his left foot about to step off
the sidewalk before her childhood home.

And when I search for her name, 
in 0.38 seconds there are 52,000 results,
all equally irrelevant. I cannot find her here, 

where a seamless web of amnesties
connects other people across time and space. 
Her face will not open for me in any format. 

If only it were possible to hit the back button 
until I heard the soft hum of bees 
dilating nighttime outside the hospice room,

if I could stop myself from disconnecting,
from being the opposite of everything 
she taught me to be. 

And thus a concept for a new manuscript was conceived. I would write poems for my parents, not about them necessarily but for them. For all the things I never had a chance to say, for all the questions I hadn't been able to ask before they both left this world. 

The days flew by and the solitude and the silent afternoons in the uninterrupted shade of the woods allowed me to focus in on this new project in a way I had never really experienced before. I thought as much about the messages the poems were trying to convey as I did about the language they were written with. 

Who did I think my mother had taught me to be? And why wasn't I being that woman?

Cue Paul Simon singing, “Oh, oh, oh, I'm going to be up for a while.”

When I left the Hill House three weeks after my arrival date I had a plethora of poems completed. I was relaxed and renewed. But what I really walked away from this experience with is an open-eyed respect for the mysteries of family that help to balance our everyday lives long after our loved ones have departed and how these perplexities continue to comprise our perceptions of self. 

I have always believed that writing has the potential to make a difference in the world. Now I understand that it also has the potential to make change within ourselves too. 

I am grateful to Amanda and Brad Kik, the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living and Natural Design, and all its supporters for making this experience possible. 

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