Monday, June 28, 2010

Finding Self in Place, part 1.

A few years ago, I participated in a one week writing workshop called The Northeast Writer's Institute (NEWI) at the University of Maine.  For that week, my only job was to choose something I wanted to write, and to write all day, except for the time spent in workshops with other writers or one-on-one time with two of my favorite professors, Harvey Kail and Rich Kent.  The piece I chose to work on was a personal essay about my connection to a particular landscape.  It answers some questions about the New England Literature Program (NELP) which I often refer to, as well as how I met Sam and why we moved to Maine.  I decided to post it (with photos!), but I'm going to give it to you in three sections because it's on the long side.

Kabeyun:  Finding Self in Place.

Very often people ask me how I, a Michigan girl, ended up living in Maine.  The answer, quite simply, is because of New Hampshire.  I fell deeply in love with New England at Camp Kabeyun, a charming old boys’ camp on Lake Winnepesauke in New Hampshire where I spent a spring semester of college studying New England Literature with forty other students from the University of Michigan.

I feel a wild, greedy possessiveness over the landscape of Kabeyun, the wide lake and rocky shore, the birch trees, the docks, the cabins, the remnants of old rock foundations hiding in the woods.  I can still hear the water of the lake lapping onto the rocks and slapping the bottom of the wooden docks, smell the sweetness of the pine cabins mixed with the cold lake air. My attachment to the camp is not just because it is so pretty or scenic, but rather because the life I led there was so rich.  Every day was packed full. Classes on Thoreau, Emerson, Dickenson, Frost were all taught outside, small groups of us sitting cross-legged in circles, journals and books splayed out on our laps. I ate well and laughed easily.  We climbed the granite mountains scattered around the lake and spent hours sitting in groups at the top, the view spread out before us.

Friendships formed easily and quickly.  We all cooked together, baked bread together, learned to contra dance, chopped wood, and read piles of books.  As the semester went on, the temperatures slowly rose and we shed our layers of fleece, let the wood stoves die out, and started swimming every day, walking barefoot on the soft, dusty trails that wove around the camp. We watched spring unfurl and summer ease in.

                                                             NELP is where I learned to bake bread.
                                               This is  20 loaves of challah rising in the bread room.

I love how I felt there, who I was there, what I learned there, how the cold water felt on my naked body.  I spent hours lying on my back on the dock looking up at the canopy of leaves.   I came to understand how I learn, read life-defining texts, and decided to become a teacher during my time at Kabeyun.  And because we were basically living outside, because the lake and the surrounding forest were my home, the shape and feel of the land was an integral part of these self-discoveries.

When I left New Hampshire at the end of that spring, I was 21 years old. I was brave, daring, and ready for whatever life had in store.  I knew that my body felt strong and my spirit undiluted in Kabeyun’s landscape. And I knew I’d be back.
But first, having officially graduated from Michigan with these last English credits that I earned in New Hampshire, I was free to go west, as I had planned to for years.   I had my sights set on San Francisco.  I packed my red Volkswagen full of my most important stuff and headed west with my black lab Charlie riding shotgun.

                                          I took this photo on my way:

Writing this, I realize that my four years in San Francisco remain a blur of images of myself, steep hills, the market up the street, a brown paper bag overfilled with groceries, a baguette and some vine-ripened tomatoes sticking out the top; days at the beach digging my heels into the sand with a book in my lap; walks through the misty tropical gardens of Golden Gate Park; hours on the phone to Michigan friends on the back porch, laughter rising into the mild air.

A few weeks after moving to SF:


From this place in my life, I can’t quite get my bearings on my memories of San Francisco because the seasons there have little distinction from one another.  It is warm and sunny in fall and spring, just slightly cooler with strings of rainy days in the winter, and stubborn fog in the summer that burns off to reveal a warming sun.  The temperature is basically consistent.  There is no snow, no leaves falling or crunching underfoot, no thunderstorms.  It is instead chronic loveliness.  Cala lilies with big, open, white blooms fill the parks all year round, flowering trees at every street corner, every day a perfect one for a bike ride across the bridge.  And though it was lovely -- trust me, it was --  I did nothing to earn the warm sunshine. After a while, it felt cheap and easy.  No long stretches of mornings scraping ice off of my windshield, no muddy March days, no black flies, no suffering.  My years there have melded into one long mostly sunny afternoon.  In some ways, living in that climate kept me at an arm’s reach from myself.  Without the cycle of seasons and weather to anchor my memories, my sense of who I was in California is much less clear from my current vantage point.   I now know that I was just waiting to get back to Kabeyun.

                                          Me with a jumping Charlie on a San Francisco Beach.

Our sunny SF kitchen.


My red VW with my friends Cassie and Lidia,  whom I met at NELP and who moved to SF a few months after me.

During my fourth year in San Francisco I applied for and was accepted to return to New Hampshire to teach at the same literature program on Lake Winnepesauke where I had been a student.  I could barely contain my excitement to get back to the lake, the cabins, the books in the woods.  But I feared that my memories had mythologized themselves after four years of nostalgia for the camp.  I would undoubtedly be disappointed when I returned.  Could it really be that beautiful, that poignant, that sweet smelling?  Maybe more importantly, could I feel the way I had felt four years earlier?  Would I be that same person again?

{--to be continued}


SNW said...

more, more, more!

Kirsten said...

"After a while, it felt cheap and easy. No long stretches of mornings scraping ice off of my windshield, no muddy March days, no black flies, no suffering. My years there have melded into one long mostly sunny afternoon. In some ways, living in that climate kept me at an arm’s reach from myself. Without the cycle of seasons and weather to anchor my memories,"

I understand this completely.