The writing prompt over at Red Writing Hood this week is inspired by Natalie Goldberg‘s book on writing memoir, Old Friends from Far Away, which has caused me to revisit some of her earlier work on the craft of writing in general and memoir in particular. While it would seem, at first glance, that writing memoir is all about time, I’ve come to believe it is rather all about place. Much like the sense of smell dominates memory, place is the cornerstone of memoir.
And so here we are.
For me, it’s rural America: dirt roads, pine trees, 4-H, and fishing. Candy from run-down concession stands at dusty ball fields. Mill ponds that do double duty as ice skating rinks in winter. One main drag through town including a Frostee Freeze, a Chinese restaurant that used to be a diner, a bowling alley with three lanes, a lumberyard, and a single stop sign. Small town gossip buzzing around small town problems. Neighbors you know, friends you made in kindergarten, teachers who’ll see your parents later that day at Rotary, the PTA, or bridge club. High school football the only show in town on a Friday night.
Growing up, I used to have the run of the place: miles of county roads, wooded acres, homemade tree-forts, friends’ backyards, corner grocery stores, nearby stables and just about anywhere else my ten-speed or my horse could take me. I used to ride my bike (blue with silver handlebars) to school from the time I was in the 4th grade. Down my dirt street, up a hill my kids would whine about, past the Quik Stop where I’d stop (only if I didn’t recognize any of the cars at the pump as belonging to friends of my mother’s) to buy Laffy Taffy at the register. From there, I’d cross a highway, and if I was running late, I’d take the shortcut on the other side through the woods on a path the neighborhood boys had carved out on their dirt bikes. Windy and narrow as a hiking trail, it rose and fell over the hills past the railroad tracks like waves cresting (all the better to jump their bikes and crash and burn) and I’d pedal furiously on the inclines and coast, standing tall on my pedals, on the decline. I’d hit the pavement again right next to the railroad station, being careful not to stop where the bums slept under their tarps and plastic bags in the sagebrush.
If I wasn’t running low on time, I’d head over the bridge, past the bowling alley and the liquor mart and the used book store that used to be the movie theater where I saw Clue with my best friend and threw up Junior Mints all over the floor. One way, the commute was about two miles and took me twenty minutes. I’d get to school sweaty, tired, dirty, and happy.
Now, I live in semi-rural America. My kids are accustomed to cow pastures and pear orchards, but also sub-divisions and stop lights. I drive them to school (3/4 of a mile, but in my defense, I’m going there anyway) and drop them off at the entrance. They still have their freedoms: a loose rein while they’re playing outside, lots of neighborhood streets to explore. But they seem to know what they’re missing; whether it stems from hearing my stories of an unencumbered childhood or simply an inherent drive for fewer boyhood boundaries, they want more.
Case in point: Calvin wants permission to ride his bike (a much nicer model than any I ever owned) the mile and a half to his buddy’s house. And I wish I could give it, but so far, I’ve said no. No to the country road with no shoulder. No to the tricky four-way stop where drivers pay no heed to pedestrians. No to the small boy riding past house after house with strangers behind the doors.
I wish I could explain to him that it’s out of my hands, anyway: I can’t give him that magical place, geographic or otherwise, that to me means safety. Means cradled by the place you are in. (Perhaps someone still living there now would tell me it no longer exists. Perhaps it only ever did in my mind: after all, I read The Lovely Bones thinking, ‘how did this not happen to me?’) But that was my childhood, not his. Calvin will have his own memoirs to write. And they’ll be full of opportunities I didn’t have, education I was not exposed to, and larger town thinking to which I wish I had been subjected. But it saddens me to realize what will be missing: safety not in numbers, doors without locks, and bikes without boundaries.