March 10, 2009
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs
Leaving, as the moon releases,
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory, the mind –
— Archibald MacLeish, 1892-1982
For reasons I cannot recall, and probably wouldn’t understand or agree with if I could, we citizens, by government decree, turned our clocks ahead on Sunday for an early start to Daylight Saving Time. It’s still technically winter, and changing the hour at which daylight begins on these still-short days means that at 7:00 A.M. it is still night.
Or so it seemed this morning. The door to the motel lobby was still locked, although I could see the coffee was ready and the bagels and doughnuts had been put out. As I approached the door, a small SUV pulled up and a man got out. He nodded a greeting and rang the after hours doorbell. The same clerk who had served me last night, and who had said he was working almost all the shifts because his uncle, the proprietor, was recovering from surgery and another employee had quit, shuffled to the door, looking sleepy.
While I fixed my coffee, which wasn’t quite hot enough to dissolve completely the powdered fake creamer provided, I listened to the conversation at the desk. I’m a traveler, a stranger in a strange land, and a fiction writer in full detail-gathering mode. Yeah, I need that t-shirt that says “Be careful what you tell me, or you’ll wind up in my novel.”
“How many?” said the clerk.
“Six.” The clerk must have looked surprised, because the man added, “Me, my wife, and four kids. And we only need the room till about four o’clock. We travel at night.”
“This is a local address,” said the clerk.
“Yeah, well, we used to live here, but we moved, and we’re just passing through on our way someplace else now.”
The clerk explained that he was going to disable the phone, there’d be no calls in or out, only to the front desk. They’ve had a lot of trouble with things like that with guests who give a local address.
The man was signing the registration card as I left. I tried to peer into the windows of his vehicle, but it was too far away. I filed the detail in my mental bank of plot points (and wrote it down here for safekeeping), packed up, and was on my way. I had 200 miles to go.
This is an easy, if long, trip. It’s a straight shot south along uncongested interstates, not like the grueling trip across the New York Thruway to Vermont that takes a lot of attention. Every hundred miles or so you move a little farther west, slide east for about fifty miles across a pleasant stretch of two-lane blacktop in southern Virginia, and then continue straight down through North Carolina to the northernmost corner of Georgia. I crossed the border just past noon, and found the Hambidge center easily.
When I was at Jentel in Wyoming I was part of a six-member group who all arrived on the same day and left on the same day a month later. I received contact and biographical information about the others who would be sharing the time with me and frequent updates about details concerning such logistical matters as my arrival and the receipt of materials I’d shipped out so I wouldn’t have to carry them on the plane.
Hambidge operates differently. Fellows arrive and depart at different times and stay for anywhere from two weeks to two months. I’d had a confirmation letter in December after I accepted the offer, but nothing since then. For all I knew, I’d be arriving at this remote facility 700 miles from my home and they’d say, “What? You’re who, exactly?”
I needn’t have worried. The director came out on the porch of the building (called the Weave Shed) where his office is. “You must be Margaret,” he said. He showed me the Rock House, the building where dinner is served and where fellows gather for socializing and use of the Internet and the telephone (the only area on the property with such capability), and then I followed him in my car up the steep, narrow, unpaved road to my cottage, a spacious area with a sleeping loft, skylights, a south-facing wall of glass, flowers on the table, and a ticking clock.
Readers of this space might remember that I left the House of Usher in Vermont last August in part because the innkeeper refused to disable the ticking clock that pounded like a tell-tale heart even in my upstairs bedroom with the door closed. The Hambidge director, not much taller than I, had left before I noticed the vile instrument over the stove (it’s not that it wasn’t loud, it’s that we were talking, I was getting my bearings). I managed to climb up on a chair, lift the thing off its hook, pull out the battery, and relegate the whole assembly to the closet for the duration of my stay.
I stayed busy all afternoon hauling in a lot (certainly not all) of my gear and deciding how to arrange the broad work tables to suit my process. I drove the ten miles into Clayton to shop at the Ingles (that’s “in-galls,” not “in-glace,’ as I first thought when I saw the one near my motel — it’s “American Owned!,” make no mistake about that), took a shower to wash the road weariness off and even fixed my hair and face before dinner.
Eating dinner in community is about the only requirement of the fellows at Hambidge. In residence right now besides me are four visual artists, a music composer, an interior designer working on a nonfiction work about the psychology of color, and another fiction writer. Some will be leaving this weekend, others as my stay continues, so that by the beginning of April I will be meeting new arrivals with whom my acquaintance will be brief. The vegetarian dinner (shirred eggs over sautéed spinach and onions, fruit salad, hash browns with green pepper, and, of course, biscuits, because this is the South) was delicious and the arts-intensive conversation lively.
By ten o’clock I was back in my cottage, winding down. The full moon had risen and was beaming through the window at the bottom of the steps to my loft. I took a glass of wine out on the porch (it was still almost 70 degrees) and sat watching it through bare branches as fast moving clouds, some thick like wads of cotton batting, some wispy like angel hair, moved across it, covering and uncovering, concealing and exposing. I saw it climb twig by twig through the night-entangled trees. As it wanes it will leave behind winter, and be full again before I leave the region.
It was the image of the full moon hanging over my car at the end of a day of intense emotion that started the novel I bring to work on here in this secluded, almost primeval place. For the next month I will live in this cabin with my characters who are not me, but whose memories and characteristics spring from my own experience as much as they do from my imagination. The questions they wrestle with about how we live in this world, about death and what might be next, about love for family and friends and our responsibilities to each other, are the questions I wrestle with in my own life. Memory by memory, may we find, if not answers, then at least some direction.
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