I was in La Grande for the afternoon, to hear a man speak about Emily Dickinson at a small inn. The room was full of sun, and I sat on a white wicker love seat next to a woman who wore too much perfume. I could taste it. The white wicker love seat was the best seat in the room, though, so I decided to put up with the perfume, which was made easier by the fact that I had what I thought was a bad cold, and kept three or four cough drops in my mouth constantly to keep from coughing. It turned out to be pneumonia.
The man had written a biography of Dickinson called My Wars Are Laid Away in Books. He was a small, friendly man, and he spoke to us as if he were telling stories of a beloved distant cousin with whom we had all lost touch. Not that I would know about that. I have thirteen cousins, and most of them I have never met. My parents chose to distance themselves from their families upon the event of their scandalous Catholic/Presbyterian marriage.
Emily Dickinson has long been on my list of good ideas for how to spend my meager vacation, working through the poems as they happened in her life, reading text and footnotes. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’d have to read a couple hundred poems a day, though. This biographer just told us stories. It was easy and pleasant.
It was not pleasant thinking of the trip home. I tried not to think about icy roads and snow between La Grande and Portland. My father was a speeder, and a drinker, and I spent a fair amount of my childhood in the backseats of various station wagons with my eyes closed tight. I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was thirty.
Before La Grande, I had been in Wallowa County, in Eastern Oregon, where my friend Suzy was the Fishtrap Writer-in-Residence. She’d been teaching writing classes in some of the Wallowa County public schools, in Enterprise, in Imnaha, in Joseph. I was her guest author, and we were going to visit a one-room schoolhouse in the tiny town of Troy.
Suzy piloted her minivan along a back road from the cabin on Wallowa Lake. This route to Troy was out of the way and made the trip even longer, which was fine. I had left my watch on the dresser, and didn’t care about the time, and the day was sunny, and I tried to get my feet warm, tucking them under the heater in the dash. The road had been plowed and there was no sign of ice. There were ring-necked pheasants at the edges of the frozen, grassy fields along Hurricane Creek.
I started a new list that morning. I wanted these things to come my way: a red feather from the neck of a ring-necked pheasant, a cardinal feather, a feather from the shoulder patch of a red-winged blackbird, and one from the crown of a purple finch. I wanted to hold my hands open, palms up, and wait for these feathers.
My New Year’s resolution at the turn of the millennium had been to wait for a white eagle feather to come to me. I wouldn’t keep the feather, I would just catch it, hold it, have it for a moment. Eagle feathers are illegal for those such as me: Scots-blooded, from a long line of Scottish Presbyterian ministers, with just a touch of Irish Catholic.
I would be religious if I could.
The drive to the one-room schoolhouse in Troy was an hour and more away, on twisting roads through Whitman National Forest. The day clouded over as we drove, and my stomach started to clench, but Suzy is from New York and knew about driving on ice, in snow. I didn’t voice my dread. I had learned early on that the slightest whimper would bring down my father’s derision.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he would say. “What the hell is wrong with you now?” And he might even turn around to me, in the backseat, to say it, taking his eyes off the road.
I was never hit as a child. Shame seemed to do the trick. Even now.
Suzy has a tongue like a snap. She’s funny. Sometimes kind. She usually goes for the funny though.
We drove past a ghost town called Flora. There are three or maybe four empty houses and, across from them, on the far side of the highway, the abandoned school. Suzy told me there are still arithmetic lessons written on the slate chalkboard. It's a dark stone building, low along the hillside, like it's sinking into the ground. It made me try to take a deep breath, and I couldn’t, which was maybe the pneumonia, or maybe all the grade schools I went to, floating uncomfortably in my memory. We moved every couple years, and I’ve never been back to any of those towns.
Finally we drove down a long switchback, clear, dry pavement, to the Grande Ronde River, at its confluence with the smaller Wenaha The Wenaha was blue. The Grande Ronde was brown. There were a few buildings, a tavern with a Closed sign, an empty RV park, and a gravel lot where Suzy pulled in and we got out. The air was still, and not very cold, and we went across a footbridge over the blue Wenaha to the square green building with big windows.
There was a fourth-grade boy, a fifth-grade boy, and a kindergarten girl named Emma. Emma was the daughter of the teacher, whose name was Clark. The county librarian was there too, since the county library itself took up half the building.
Clark held Emma on his lap. She looked like a small, blonde version of him. I have been told I look like my father, and I always thought he was handsome. I tried to remember ever sitting on his lap.
We were in a circle of library tables that fit together, in a wooden room. The floor was not wooden, it was linoleum made to look like wood, and I was fooled.
I said, What an old, nice building. Look at the lovely floor.
They all laughed at me, even Suzy.
I pretended I was joking. I had left my glasses back at the cabin, with my watch. I am seldom prepared for the real world.
Emily Dickinson used to lower baskets of gingerbread from her second-floor rooms when the neighborhood children played in the yard. She collected wildflowers and let the neighboring boys carry her pots—yellow ladyslippers, Indian pipes, cardinal flowers. She locked herself in the root cellar when she didn’t want to go to church. The stories went on and on. I didn’t get out of that small inn in La Grande until late in the afternoon. I wasn’t wearing my watch then either, but the sun was below the ridgelines. There was thick snow falling on the way up Meacham Pass, but Interstate 84 was clear, and the sky ahead was clear. I was trying to remember the Dickinson poem that begins Hope is a thing with feathers, and I was trying to figure out what time I would get home.
Black ice is called “black” because it is invisible, and it was there, in the shady spots on the highway, and I slipped a little left, and a little right, and then slowly off the road, onto the right shoulder, sliding to a gentle stop in a foot of snow. It happened so slowly and easily, I didn’t even freak out, and there were no cars or trucks anywhere near. I got out and looked around at the beautiful, wide open pass. Scattered ponderosa pine. Patches of bright blue sky. Quiet rush of air high up. The interstate was less than ten feet away.
There were brand-new tire chains in the trunk, and I laid them behind the rear wheels, got back in, and tried to back up. I got out again and gazed hopelessly at the dirty snow and gravel I had scattered.
I tried to call AAA, but there was no cell phone tower nearby.
For a small space of about a minute I tried swearing at the sky, but that felt silly. A couple RVs, a semi, and a few cars drove by. A young man on his way to Hood River stopped and he tried to get me out but couldn’t do it. He said he would call AAA from his cell phone down the road, when he got reception.
This would never have happened to my father. It would never happen to Suzy. Suzy moves through the world with grace when it comes to vehicles, and children too. I am fairly incompetent when it comes to either. I have met her parents. They seemed crazy, and kind of mean. But they love her, I could tell. And she is not afraid in the world.
She said to the kids at Troy, Tell us about the river.
They giggled and shrugged and squirmed. They looked at Clark, and at the county librarian. They didn’t really want to look at Suzy or me.
They told each other about the river.
To me the riversides were red and gold with spring growth, and there was blue snow in the shadows of rocks and cliffs. I can be wildly distracted by what I see when I ride along the highways of the outback, to the point where there is no room for thought, and I think this is what being a believer might be like.
But they spoke of fly-fishing, of the best steelhead runs in a hundred years. There was a duck with a hurt leg, it was bloody. Sometimes there is no place to stand when the river rises.
We said, Write about that.
Clark wrote down what Emma told him. She said, Write that it gets swift.
A state cop went by on the other side of the interstate, going west, a blonde woman who waved, and then pretty soon she came back and pulled up alongside me.
She said, It’s busy for tow trucks. One will be here soon. Don’t worry.
I was relieved that she was there, and I started to tear up, which surprised me. I thanked her for stopping, and said that I knew she must be having a busy day, icy roads and all. My dad may have been a neurotic drunk, but I liked him, and the fact that he sometimes liked me back has given me a certain appreciation for authority figures.
She said, Stay in your car and buckle your seat belt. This is a dangerous place to be.
I promised I would, and she said, Can I see your driver’s license please?
Fortunately, I had my license with me, which is not always the case.
After that, the good-hearted world stepped in.
Every few minutes, someone pulled over. I would get out, run up to their car, and say, Thank you for stopping, tow truck on the way, I’m fine, really, thank you so much, yes.
Soon my feet were wet and cold from getting in and out of the car. I had the heat turned on, and I was trying to remember the last two lines of Hope is a thing with feathers, and trying not to watch in the rearview mirror for my tow truck. My stomach twisted with anxiety, but I told myself that the tow truck was coming, I was not on a schedule, the road ahead was clear. I was not in trouble. No one was going to get mad at me. I wouldn’t even have to tell anyone if I didn’t want to. The day went to dusk. After almost an hour, when the tow truck came, it took less than five minutes to get me out.
The tow truck driver had gray hair and blue eyes that wrinkled, and a tired smile.
He said, There ya go. Drive carefully.
I promised I would.
Less than two miles down the pass toward Pendleton, the road was dry and the sky opened above me. Stars came out. I got gas at the Milton-Freewater exit, washed the windows, bought a box of cough drops, and then drove on as fast as I could. The speed limit was 65. I crunched the cough drops like they were candy and they landed in my stomach like small rocks. I tried not to look at the mile markers. I wanted the miles to go faster than one at a time.
Ten minutes is a long time in a little school library, so after ten minutes we asked them to stop writing and read what they had written. Clark read Emma’s.
Then Suzy said, Circle one thing you wrote that you could change.
That Suzy is so smart. She knows how to make things work, besides being funny and witty and beautiful, and having beautiful children.
She said, Just circle anything.
Emma changed “fishing with Mom” to “fishing with Dad.” She fictionalized. Clark said Emma tells stories all the time. To him, to her dolls, to herself when she’s in the bathtub.
One boy changed “Fourth of July” to “Independence Day.” He liked the way “Independence Day” sounded. He was hearing the music of language.
One boy wrote about standing in cold, cold water in the summer, fishing near the bank.
I said, What’s another word for cold?
He said, Ice.
I said, What’s cold and fun and summer all at the same time?
He said, Ice cream.
And the other boy yelled, Sno-Cones!
And the kids all yelled, Sno-Cones!
Emma jumped off Clark’s lap and knocked over a chair. The fourth-grade boy pounded the fifth-grade boy on the shoulder.
Standing in water as cold as a Sno-Cone.
Suzy and I took a different way home from Troy to her cabin on Wallowa Lake, circling way up into Washington State on the road that looped around Flora and then met up with the highway at the top of the pass. We were quiet. I don’t know what she was thinking, and I didn’t want to ask. There were stands of ponderosa, pink-trunked in the afternoon light, and I love ponderosa, and the roads were still pretty clear. We had done our work, had shared the sacred, secret, funny language of children as they wrote of their world. I am always stunned by having been in the presence of small children. They’re so serious. They’re so small. I try to remember sitting on my father’s lap, and I can’t. I try to remember being small, and I can’t.
I was moved and humbled and afraid to speak of it to Suzy. She might say something about how Emma wouldn’t quit picking her nose, or that Clark was a bit of a hippie.
We saw a coyote standing in the middle of a snowy field and I didn’t speak of it being a trickster that might make us lose our way, or a sign that the universe was happy with us. I have built a careful life that seems to hold up from day to day, but I don’t know what I believe in.
When we got back to the cabin I tucked under a musty quilt on the couch and Suzy built up the fire in the woodstove. We always lived in the east, but my father loved the Pacific Northwest, and I thought about telling him about this day’s drive. He has been gone for almost twenty-five years, and I still forget sometimes. Actually, it’s more like I remember sometimes.
The draft of the woodstove didn’t work very well, and I am good at messing with fires and woodstoves, but I was aching and tired, and my feet were getting warm for the first time all day. As the cabin got smoky and Suzy tinkered with the draft and opened and closed windows, I slipped into a doze that was, unbeknownst to me, the fun part of pneumonia. And I was being sad, missing my father. I coughed a lot. I thought it was the smoke.
Portland was cold to come back to, a cold that made the daffodils look hard-edged, cold that stilled the tendrils of the winter jasmine. There is a yochino red-barked cherry tree in front of the house next door, and there were tiny birds in the tree that first morning back, hundreds of tiny birds, or maybe ten or eleven, small, like a hummingbird is small, and they flew off through the backyards and I couldn’t see them anymore.
The screen on my kitchen window holds dust and seed wings and cobwebbing. I couldn’t see through it. I sat at the table by the window all morning. I didn’t even make breakfast. I was feverish. The morning hours slipped by.
I wear my small watch sometimes, just for adornment. To be serious about wearing a watch would require a New Year’s resolution. To be serious about it would mean wearing a watch with a face I can actually see. To be serious about it would mean wearing glasses, and I would rather see far away than up close. Far away are those things I don’t know yet, maybe a tree, maybe a new bird, maybe an itinerant deity wandering the universe. Somewhere in the middle distance are ice patches on roads.
I am more willing to get serious about Sno-Cones.
For now, I am not trying to be more like Suzy, and I am not being the guest author, and I am not driving on a road with black ice.
For now, here, at my table, with a notebook and a jar of sharp pencils, I am home again. This feels like faith. There is calm and empty space around me, between me and the cherry tree next door. On the page of the notebook. Between me and my father.
I put the Dickinson biography on the shelf. There is another biography called Lives Like Loaded Guns. It looks less at the woman in white at the top of the stairs, more at her crazy family life, the rage and betrayals and darkness. I probably won’t read that one either.
I still hope for feathers, though. Tomorrow, or maybe the day after, I will put my reading glasses away, in their case, in my desk drawer, and leave them there, and go back out into the world, without my watch.
Notable - Best American Essays, 2015