The other day I was searching old fiction files for a few cuts that we were thinking of using in this new radio documentary we are producing on the creative economy of the north woods. There was a collection of short stories that I called “Leaving Lake Country” about growing up here and feeling a cloud of despair and readiness to run. There were two mystery novels, and one I slipped into and started reading it for minute. Suddenly I had the strangest feeling of both familiarity (I had written this) and coming upon a total stranger (who wrote this?) I read further into the story and suddenly I felt like somebody slammed me on the shoulder. The feeling was actually physical. It was the strangest sensation of grief and sadness—and being knocked alongside the head.
When I fall into writing a novel it is like falling into a long and sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful love affair. It takes me deeply into myself.
It has been a long time since I had that feeling.
In a way, I think I gave up on myself, and I don’t care for the feeling. Something I love so much I do not do? For years I worked very hard to find the right agent and publisher and it became such a chore of frustration and heartbreak. So, I figured I could avoid all that heartbreak by simply not writing any more novels.
Instead I have given all my energies these past few years to building a house and beautiful gardens. I love my house and gardens, but something else in me wants to be planted. Or something inside of me wants now to go live in the house and this house is my own spirit.
Here is the passage of the mystery novel I came across . . . the one that slammed me. The story takes place up here in this beautiful North country. This particular passage is from a disturbed Ojibwa mother named Clarice who is trying to recover from addiction and a very hard life. Her goal is to get back to her grown daughter to heal a broken relationship. An unusual Samoan woman in the cities (Manoa) has taken her under her wing to try to heal her. Manoa gives her a notebook and tells her to write down everything she remembers from her growing up years on the Leech Lake Reservation. This is part of what she wrote. (warning–contains graphic language)
I should just hand Manoa this goddamn notebook and end it here. Manoa said my spirit is lost if I don’t write it all down. I already know my spirit has gone far, far, away. It went away when I was eight.
Walk straight in, Manoa said.
I grew up on the Tract 33 in Cass Lake, Minnesota. Cass Lake is one of the most beautiful places on earth and when I was little, I knew it. I knew we didn’t have money, and I knew things were screwed up, but it didn’t seem to matter because I had the woods, the lakes, my sister, and the books. Nobody really knew this but every night I read underneath my blanket with a flashlight. Books I got from my teachers, from the library. Once I found a whole pile of books thrown away in a box behind the library. I dragged that old box home and read every one. The woods, my sister, and the books; I didn’t need anything else.
I created fairyland in the woods between the tract and the Cass Lake Marina. Nothing could touch me there. Only the magic. My secret garden was bigger than the world. My little sister, Agnes, and I were like animals living in the woods. Nobody cared where we went or what we did and sometimes we’d pack sandwiches and stay away until late at night. We didn’t much like to be home.
I don’t know why I have to write all this shit down. It seems stupid, silly. What does this have to do with why I want to put things up my nose, why I let men do things to me when I don’t even know their names? Stupid.
Manoa said when I reached a room in my memories I didn’t want to walk into, that was when I needed to throw open the door and walk in. She is sure one fucked-up woman. I’m letting a woman who runs a fancy whorehouse tell me what to do. How fucked up is that? But I don’t have any place else to go and I don’t know what else to do so I’ll try it her way.
One day we came home late, Agnes and I, it must have been near midnight, and the house was full of drunks. We sneaked in the back door and tried to get into our room without anybody noticing us. So quiet. I got up to pee a little while later and my mother was in the bathroom. She was so drunk and she had her dress up around her waist and was scrubbing herself between the legs. I must have been seven. She was crying and crying and then she hung her head over the toilet and threw up. I felt bad for her and so I went in and touched her head.
I said, “Mamma? Are you okay?”
I remember the look in her eyes. Sometimes when I dream I see those eyes all blurry and watery and looking as if somebody stabbed her with a knife. “No, baby. I’m not okay. I’ll never be okay.”
When she said that, she wasn’t drunk no more. She was saying it like it was.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“He raped me,” she said. “That drunken, fucking bastard raped me.”
I was too little to even know what rape was but I’d seen a lot, heard a lot, and knew that men sometimes stuck their things inside of women whether they wanted it or not. I petted her hair. I always thought my mamma had the prettiest hair, like dark, glossy water.
Mamma raised her head from the toilet and looked at me. “Oh baby” she crooned, taking me close and holding me tight. “I wish I could send you off on the wind or float you down a river–get you out of here to some other place.”
She was crying then. She smelled like booze and puke but I didn’t care cause she was holding me to her and rocking and rocking and it felt so good and I didn’t know until years later that all the women in my family—my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts and their daughters—all of them had been raped. It started a hundred years earlier when my great-grandmother was raped by a local policeman. She killed him with a stick and they locked her up.
But that wasn’t me. I’m supposed to stay with my own stories. Manoa says to write down every single thing I remember and not cut off anything. And that’s what I remember, my mamma holding me and smelling of puke and booze and me not wanting to be anywhere but there, in her arms, no matter what she smelled like.
Because she loved me. I knew she loved me in that moment.
Like I said, it slammed me. It is time to go home to my spirit, to my writing, to me. It is time for you to go home to your spirit—if not now, when?
I have the urge to apologize for the graphic nature of this piece, but that is the Minnesota nice in me that keeps me from forging ahead. It has been a barrier . . .
Winter is coming. A good time to buy a new notebook and see what jumps out at me . . .Share on Facebook