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I went to a land-grant university, a rural school that students at the rival institution dismissed as a cow college, though I was a junior before I ever saw a single cow there. For someone who had spent her childhood almost entirely outdoors, my college life was unacceptably enclosed. Every day I followed the same brick path from crowded dorm to crowded class to crowded office to rowded cafeteria, and then back to the dorm again. A gentler terrain of fields and ponds and piney woods existed less than a mile from the liberal arts high-rise, but I had no time for idle exploring, for poking about in the scaled-down universe where forestry and agriculture students learned their trade.
One afternoon late in the fall of my junior year, I broke. I had stopped at the cafeteria to grab a sandwich before the dinner crowd hit, hoping for a few minutes of quiet in which to read my literature assignment, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, before my evening shift at the dorm desk. But even with few students present, there was nothing resembling quiet in that cavernous room. The loudspeaker blasted John Cougar’s ditty about Jack and Diane, and I pressed my fingers into my ears and hunched low over my book. The sound of my own urgent blood thumping through my veins quarreled with the magnificent sprung rhythm of the poem as thoroughly as Jack and Diane did, and I finally snapped the book closed. My heart was still pounding as I stepped into the dorm lobby, ditched my pack, and started walking. I was headed out.
It was a delight to be moving, to feel my body expanding into the larger gestures of the outdoors. What a relief to feel my walk lengthening into a stride and my lungs taking in air by the gulp. I kept walking—past the football stadium, past the sororities—until I came to the red dirt lanes of the agriculture program’s experimental fields. Brindled cows turned their unsurprised faces toward me in pastures dotted with hay bales that looked like giant spools of golden thread. The empty bluebird boxes nailed to the fence posts were shining in the slanted light. A red-tailed hawk—the only kind I could name—glided past, calling into the sky.
I caught my breath and walked on, with a rising sense that glory was all around me. Only at twilight can an ordinary mortal walk in light and dark at once—feet plodding through night, eyes turned up toward bright day. It is a glimpse into eternity, that bewildering notion of endless time, where light and dark exist simultaneously.
When the fields gave way to the experimental forest, the wind had picked up, and dogwood leaves were lifting and falling in the light. There are few sights lovelier than leaves being carried on wind. Though that sight was surely common on the campus quad, I had somehow failed to register it. And the swifts wheeling in the sky as evening came on—they would be visible to anyone standing on the sidewalk outside Haley Center, yet I had missed them, too.
There, in that forest, I heard the sound of trees giving themselves over to night. Long after I turned in my paper on Hopkins, long after I was gone myself, this goldengrove unleaving would be releasing its bounty to the wind.
I thought I had escaped the beautiful, benighted South for good when I left Alabama for graduate school in Philadelphia in 1984, though now I can’t imagine how this delusion ever took root. At the age of twenty-two, I had never set foot any farther north than Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the time I got to Philadelphia, I was so poorly traveled—and so geographically illiterate—I could not pick out the state of Pennsylvania on an unlabeled weather map on the evening news.
I can’t even say why I thought I should get a doctorate in English. The questions that occupy scholars—details of textuality, previously unnoted formative influences, nuances of historical context—held no interest for me. Why hadn’t I applied to writing programs instead? Some vague idea about employability, maybe.
When I tell people, if it ever comes up, that I once spent a semester in Philadelphia, a knot instantly forms in the back of my throat, a reminder across thirty years of the panic and despair I felt with every step I took on those grimy sidewalks, with every breath of that heavy, exhaust-burdened air. I had moved into a walkup on a main artery of West Philly, and I lay awake that first sweltering night with the windows open to catch what passed for a breeze, waiting for the sounds of traffic to die down. They never did. All night long, the gears of delivery trucks ground at the traffic light on the corner; four floors down, strangers muttered and swore in the darkness.
Everywhere in the City of Brotherly Love were metaphors for my own dislocation: a homeless woman squatting in the grocery store parking lot, indifferent to the puddle spreading below her; the sparrows and pigeons, all sepia and brown, that replaced the scolding blue jays and scarlet cardinals I’d left behind; even deep snow, which all my life I had longed to see, was flecked with soot when it finally arrived. I was so homesick for the natural world that I tamed a mouse who lived in my wall, carefully placing stale Cheetos on the floor beyond me, just to feel the creature’s delicate feet skittering across my own bare toes.
If I was misplaced in the city, sick with longing for the hidebound landscape I had just stomped away from, shaking its caked red dirt from my sandals, oh, how much more disrupted I felt in my actual classes. The dead languages I was studying—Old English and Latin—were more relevant to my notions of literature than anything I heard in the literary theory course. The aim of the course, at least so far as I could discern it, was to liberate literature from both authorial intent and any claim of independent meaning achieved by close reading. “The text can’t mean anything independent of the reader,” the professor, a luminary of the field, announced. “Even the word ‘mean’ doesn’t mean anything.”
To a person who has wanted since the age of fourteen to be a poet, a classroom in which all the words of the English language have been made bereft of the power to create meaning, or at least a meaning that can be reliably communicated to others, is not a natural home. I was young, both fearful and arrogant, and perhaps I had been praised too often for an inclination to argue on behalf of a cause.
“The word ‘mean’ doesn’t mean anything”—these were fighting words to me. I raised my hand. “Pretend we’re in the library, and you’re standing on a ladder above me, eye-level with a shelf that holds King Lear and Jane Fonda’s Workout Book,” I said, red-faced and stammering, sounding far less assured than I felt. “If I say, ‘Hand me down that tragedy,’ which book do you reach for?”
The other students in the class, young scholars already versed in the fundamental ideas behind post-structuralist literary theories, must have thought they were listening to Elly May Clampett. They laughed out loud. I never raised my hand again.
Once, not long after I arrived in Philadelphia, a thundering car crash splintered the relative calm of a Sunday afternoon outside my apartment, and the building emptied itself onto the sidewalk as everyone came out to see what happened. I’m not speaking in metaphors when I say that my neighbors were surely as lost as I was: mostly immigrants from somewhere much farther away than Alabama, they couldn’t communicate with each other or with me—not because we couldn’t agree on the meaning of the words, but because none of the words we knew belonged to the same language.
Winter break came so early in December that it made no sense to go home for Thanksgiving, no matter how homesick I was. But as the dark nights grew longer and the cold winds blew colder, I wavered. Was it too late? Could I still change my mind?
It was too late. Of course. It was far, far too late. And I had papers to write. I had papers to grade. Also, I had no car, and forget booking a plane ticket so close to the holiday, even if I’d had money to spare for a plane ticket, which on a graduate student’s stipend I definitely did not. Amtrak was sold out, and the long, long bus ride seemed too daunting. I would be spending Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, a thousand miles from home.
“I don’t think I can stand it here,” I said during the weekly call to my parents that Sunday. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Just come home,” my father said.
“It’s too late.” I was crying by then. “It’s way too late.”
“You can always come home, Sweet,” he said. “Even if you marry a bastard, you can always leave him and come on home.”
My father intended no irony in making this point. He had never read Thomas Wolfe—might never have heard of Thomas Wolfe. These were words of loving reassurance from a parent to his child, a reminder that as long as he and my mother were alive, there would always be a place in the world for me, a place where I would always belong, even if I didn’t always believe I belonged there.
But I wonder now, decades later, if my father’s words were more than a reminder of my everlasting place in the family. I wonder now if they were also an expression of his own longing for the days when all his chicks were still in the nest, when the circle was still closed and the family that he and my mother had made was complete. I was the first child to leave home, but I had given no thought to my parents’ own loneliness as they pulled away from the curb in front of my apartment in Philadelphia, an empty U-Haul rattling behind Dad’s ancient panel van, for the long drive back to Alabama without me.
I gave no thought to it then, but I think of it all the time now. I think of my father’s words across a bad landline connection in 1984 that reached my homesick heart in cold Philadelphia. I think of the twenty-six-hour bus ride into the heart of Greyhound darkness that followed, a desperate journey that got me home in time for the squash casserole and the cranberry relish. I think most of my own happiness, of all the years with a good man and the family we have made together and the absorbing work—everything that followed a single season of loss, and only because I listened to my father. Because I came home.