Rick Bass has come to speak to us about writing. Chunks of emu grill beside several picnic tables of food. Bass is densely muscled and soft voiced. We’re at a cabin in the woods; the river rushing past. Dozens of graduate students on a perfect spring night talking about writing.
His small daughters have hair the color of moonlight. They ask if I’m named Soap. “Sure,” I tell them. “Will you push us on the swing?” I push them into the darkening branches of the pine trees. A bonfire and voices just to the edge of us while the little girls take turns shouting: Higher, Soap. Higher!
We feel like a collective in this place. Beer bread baked on the wood stove. Fire wood chopped and hauled. All of us anxious to help. The little girls’ mother keeps checking to see if they’re annoying me. “Not at all,”I tell her, and it’s true. I want to stay forever. Twenty-three years old, and halfway through my MFA degree. I write poems on this deck in the morning before anyone else wakes. Return to the murmur of voices from sleeping bags.
A year later, the carpenter calls and asks if I want to go back to the Yaak. The pipes ruptured over the winter, and the main floor bathroom has been destroyed. “I’m being paid to fix it,” she said, “and I want you to go with me.”
Early midweek, we drive up. Her puppy dividing his time between my lap and hers.
Not just the bathroom, but much of the living room has also been damaged. I ask if I can help, and am grateful that I can’t. She starts a fire, and puts lentil soup on the wood stove, and then begins tearing up boards.
I play with the puppy. Read to him when he gets sleepy. Write for awhile. Feed the fire, and then play guitar. Quietly at first, until I forget that I’m not alone. I play loudly, and shout lyrics toward the river, and try to forget that it’s all ending. That soon I’ll have graduated and what is purest about years of poetry and literature will be squandered in this pragmatic world. Ruined like this glorious cabin, hemorrhaging water in its winter solitude. There is no sanctuary.
It’s a long time before I notice that the rest of the house is quiet. The carpenter stretched on the deck with the opened door between us. She brings me a bowl of soup and we take turns reading aloud from Alice Munro. The light through the trees dappling the deck and the dog and the dragonflies.
And I will think of those few days all the years that I am sick and unhappily married. I will think of her beautiful work as she restored the rooms around me. How I watched her saw and hammer and drill and knew the art in those tasks, too. How the puppy began to blend with the small girls in my memories. How I thought of him leaping into the branches in the arc of their swing. The feral delight of that place and those stories. How pure love felt in the wilderness.
For a while, I held it against myself. You had a chance, once, to be happy. The Yaak like a missed opportunity. A forfeit.
But that’s madness.
Those days were a map of what is possible.
A home removed. Joyful dogs. Children in the trees. Novels read aloud near the fire. Soup on the stove. Music and projects and talk talk talk. The way the poem forms as you stand at the window. The way the day hangs from it like a sash. From the bridge, the creek rages past in its spring form, and nearby a deer watches you.
You are not close to it, but inside it. You are the child in the swing rushing toward the trees and the sky. Your voice insisting: Higher! Higher!