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Interlochen, MI

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

It’s snowing outside the window, here in northern Michigan. A scattering of thick white flakes, puffs like breath escaping the warm cave of your mouth, swirls like white smoke exhaled slow back in the day when cigarettes were still glamorous. At night, when they fall, you look up into a sky that is seamlessly black, stars like change on a black tablecloth, nickels and dimes spilling over the edge to come clattering down, and the moon is a bright quarter rubbed clean by God’s bored fingertips thrust deep in His heavenly pocket as He waited impatiently in line for coffee yesterday morning.

But that’s too fanciful. What I mean is that at night here, when the snow falls, it looks like the sky, like the stars, are all falling. Everything is that bright, that shining. The tree branches freeze over with ice. The white of snow is quiet everywhere. In the dead hours, from midnight onward, it’s not silent so much as a hush, an expectation. It sounds, more than anything, like the woods are waiting, everything holding its breath, humming like the papery hive concealing wasps and bees and honey, like the low throb of blood thrumming through the veins, like the moment before someone speaks. Your dog stands on her hind legs at the window, a growl opening low in her throat as an old door creaking on its hinges. Her hackles rise up but her tail’s a flourish of wagging. She can’t decide if she should tear out your throat and plunge through the window to run feral or stay here inside and stay tame.

But, before this, before all the silence, what you hear mostly is the noise of teenagers. Shouts and singing, whistles, catcalls and the rhythmic thud-thudding of their feet as they race past your window, almost late for sign-in once again.

You don’t mind. It’s their world you’re living in, even though it used to be (still is, I suppose) yours. You’ve spent the last few months as the Writer in Residence at Interlochen, a boarding school for the arts, your old boarding school actually, a place you’ve spent the last decade mythologizing; an academy deep in the woods between two lakes where a few hundred teenagers spend all their time writing, painting, practicing, rehearsing, dancing–whatever their major is; a cult, a colony, a little hidden place, a religion, an isolated few acres where for four years art is all that counts but there is no outside world; somewhere in your memory that’s a fly in amber, but without the stasis–just the gleam and shine, the carapace of the past and the gold sap hardened around it, the secrets and the history. You’ve been away for years but now you’re back and return is like an attic door you never saw before so you open it to find a path leading down a spiraling staircase through your past, under the roots of trees and then out into an open space where you have only half of what you always wanted but somehow it’s still enough.

This has been a sojourn in a pared down, purer sort of life: you teach in the morning (a fiction workshop and a comp lit class about Trickster figures–Coyote, Loki, Eleggua and such, the gods you’d like to believe in, shape-changers, agents of chaos, of transformation and sex). You write in the afternoon and evening. You live in a little wooden cabin. All your friends are thousands of miles away except for a few who are usually busy and your former teachers who are friends now too but they would rather sleep than wander through the cold woods of campus late at night. You can’t blame them. They’ve been here for years. And you would probably rather be alone here anyway. You have the past to keep you company. The students are locked safe in their dorms, close enough that you can love them, warm and quiet and asleep, distant enough that you don’t need to entertain or explain, that you can get lost for a little while in the circuitry of the years.

In the dark, memories flicker like shadows, like light from matches struck for the cigarettes you first learned to smoke here and relinquished years ago. Cars speed by on the highway far away, making a noise like wind. Owls float weightless and predatory under the cathedral arch of dark trees. The air is as clean and sharp as cold metal. It’s like licking the back of a cold copper spoon.

It is strange to go back to where you grew up, to be older in the place that shaped who you became. It’s like stepping into a magic trick. It is like being Houdini and escaping, for a moment, the prison of the flesh and the terrible linearity of time. Sometimes you walk around the campus, you sweep your eyes across your classroom, you see the students and you are falling through the years. You think you see Alexa who you snuck into an ice fisherman’s shanty with to borrow an ax when you were fifteen and listened to too much punk rock. You walk past the art department and Mark is cutting your hair, calloused fingers and cold scissors on the back of your neck. A boy you swear you’d probably be in love with if you were still seventeen is walking past your cabin. Your friends are waiting for you, sitting at the back corner table of the cafeteria, the one closest to the door. Your sister and her girlfriend are building tree forts in the woods. Near by there’s a pack of students you could fall in step with if you slipped out of this older skin. It’s late at night and you and Melissa are clambering up the catwalk of the outside auditorium to dangle your legs out into the dark and empty air below, to smoke illicit cigarettes whose ash will fall like a scattering of snow.

The years pleat and fold in like an accordion: a student grins, brown hair tumbling over his forehead, and, for a second, you remember him as someone else, the friend who took your hand and led you out across the frozen lake your first winter here, snow flurries in your face like tiny nails, the ice shaking and cracking under your feet and the slosh of the water below (three years after that, the same walk along that stretch of beach and then, in an empty summer cabin with a door whose lock you learned how to pick, fingers clasped like loose bracelets around wrists, cold hands thrust inside the warmth of each other’s sleeves, laughing, numb lips and teeth against teeth). Another student turns around and her long dark hair as it swirls in the air is the eddying of time and water as she gestures to her friend. Moments fold up like paper cranes, like origami horses, and then the birds stretch out their angular wings, the horses run away.

It’s funny because you are supposed to be teaching your students about narrative, that twisting path that leads us through the brambles and thickets of words, but you don’t have one these days. You are supposed to be telling them stories of the trickster gods, spirits who live at the crossroads and erase boundaries the way a glass of water spills across the page to smudge the black ink gray, and how that’s a good place to visit but a dangerous place to live. But of course that is what you are doing, living without a clear narrative, in the liminal, that non-linear non-progression (if “progress” indicates a straight line forward of which here there are none). Some mornings, walking across campus, you hear the slide of a tuning violin from a practice room and think you are still in New York, a high keening siren outside your window.

Sometimes you fumble awake in the dark wondering why you are alone in this unfamiliar room, where your roommate and your suitemates are, what you are doing outside of your dorm. Or aren’t you maybe in the city? So where is your boyfriend (whichever one your body wakes up remembering until that memory fades away like mist rising over the lake)? Is the door locked? Why are the streets so quiet, is it the end of time?

Then you shake yourself like you’re flinging off drops of cold water, an image in the viewfinder snapping into focus, and the difference between then and now is back. Your friends haven’t been here for years. Although some of them got lost for a while, you’ve found your way back to most of them by now. And the ones who aren’t back yet? Well, life is long. Your students remind you of the past but they’re different, they’re wiser in some ways, their jokes are funnier and they live more inside the world (Consider this: the first war with Iraq happened when you were here and no one knew about it until it was over but these kids can drop politicians’ names like a DJ spinning tracks). You live in a cabin now, your apartment sublet to a friend. The catwalk is probably locked up these days and, anyway, you haven’t smoked for years, so why risk a climb where your bones could snap like castanets if you lost your grip? The fishing shanty you broke into is gone, the ice melted and refrozen twelve years’ worth of times. Call it the same ice, if you want, the lake melting each spring and then freezing, an annual transformation.

And maybe that’s what you’ve been doing all these years too: the cells changing composition but you still seem to end up where you began. You go away to New York. You come back to Michigan. You listen to the sound of traffic or the noise of waves and wind through aspens. It’s pretty much the same–a rush, a sigh, the sound of things moving past. You thought you were in love with someone at sixteen here who broke your heart for real in the East Village at twenty-six. Both times, you learned how to bless the moments you had and let go of the rest because what else can we ever do but love the past and keep moving? You and your friends still walk around aimlessly together but it’s through the city now, tall buildings stretching up instead of trees, quiet underneath streetlights or stars. Coyotes howling in the woods or dogs in the dog run playing at being wild. Either way, there are scraps of beauty.

When you leave, when your residency’s over, you won’t be as sad to go as before because this time you know you’re bringing back what you found with you. You figure you’ll run into your students again someday because there was something you recognized inside them and you’ve lived long enough to understand that what we know as a part of ourselves is not easily lost. In the meantime, in these last few days before you depart, your students do the work you ask from them which is, when you believe work is sacred, the best gift they can give. They unearth stories of their childhood which must seem to them as far away as another country, further even than yours. They give you words and memories like presents shining in outstretched hands. They give you a mix they’ve made for your class with the song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” on it and, the thing of it is, they have, all of them, they do. You give them what you can–love, your attention, the few things that you know. You’d give them a blessing if you knew how to believe. But they have all the blessings they need right now anyway: words, each other, spruce etched against the soft pencil lead of winter skies, shards of ice on the lake shining like broken bottles, the future a road, the caw-cawing of desolate crows. But you’d give them more if you could, you’d open your heart, your wallet, your arms, your home.

You’ve fallen in love with them because they’ve seen Attack of the Clones twelve times and work at a marina every summer; because they want to meet Satan at a nightclub; because they write stories about leprosy and bear attacks and Florence and old blind men; because they read their work to you at an open mic; because they’re braver than you were, and smarter; because they are alive. You’ve fallen in love with them like forgiving your past. They love you, if they love you, because they want to believe that departure and change are not absolutes, that when they leave they too can find their way back. All the things you grew up and thought you needed–subways and sashimi, vegetables whose leaves unfurl like umbrellas, graffitied slogans on the street, Svankmajer movies at the hole in the wall rental place down the block, the corner bodega, the daily New York Times–all of that shimmers for a moment in the air and is gone. You’ll be happy to go back to it. You’re delighted where you are. The world around you flickers and you see the strings that are there underneath everything. It’s all tied together: what happened then, what will happen, and now. You could walk around all day today grinning, laughing aloud at the sheer absurdity of what you’d forgotten all these years. It’s true that you can’t go home again, but only because you never really left. Trust me, there’s nothing that’s ever completely lost.

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