Benjamin Vogt has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an M.F.A. from The Ohio State University. He's received a fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center and nominations in two genres for a Pushcart Prize. Work has recently appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Diagram, ISLE, Orion, The Sun, and Verse Daily. Benjamin is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection Afterimage (SFA Press). He blogs at The Deep Middle, where he rants about writing and his 2,000 foot native Nebraska prairie garden.
Across the Flats
All created beings begin to die as soon as they begin to live,
and no one expects any one of them to become absolutely perfect,
still less to stay that way. Each individual thing is only a sketch
of the specific perfection planned for its kind.
For ten minutes I watch the parade of telephone poles, Lutheran churches, a bison farm, antique shops, a horse stable that supplies trained horses to the Minneapolis police department, and the occasional nondescript restaurant open only for dinner. Mom's got some light jazz playing in the car, not too loud, just enough so that if I might want to say something she'll be able to hear me—and just loud enough that if we don't want to, we won't have to say anything. This is something I'm thankful for. I know I get it from her, the knowledge that in silences, perfect, still silences, we can slip into and out of ourselves and our environments as easily as putting on a pair of mesh shorts on the way out to garden.
This is my first visit after my parents moved forty minutes north from my childhood home in Chanhassen, Minnesota—where she had taught me to garden—and Mom and I are driving to a new nursery she's heard of called Ambergate Gardens. The landscaper she hired to do the foundation beds at the new house said she had to go check it out, and she's been waiting weeks for me and my most recent post-school-year visit until she did. The drive will be almost an hour, and although it's nearly eleven in the morning, I'm still waking up.
I don't pretend to know what's going through my mom's mind in those first few minutes to Ambergate; I don't care to. My mind is so full of daydreaming, of business all its own, that the entire process of starting out on our journey is one of peace, of preparing for the day before me. By the end I'll be mentally tired, maybe even physically exhausted—like my mom, I'm spent after most social interactions. Growing up, we'd have family over for wonderful Sunday afternoon swim and cookout parties, in the tradition of Sunday dinner at my grandparent's house in Oklahoma. After even just a few hours you could see my mom's attitude change from gracious host to worn down pencil nub. When everyone left we'd gather in the living room, plop down on the furniture, and in perfect silence exclaim our relief at having a quiet house again. This is balance. The quiet and the stillness is a preparation and a reorganization of the full body and mind, and it is a period of great creativity. These are moments I sorely lack and miss in the hectic schedule of graduate school, teaching, and even while writing.
Some might call this character trait a sort of social disorder or anxiety my mother has passed on to me. I look at it as the base for who I am as a person, an artist, the ability to achieve productive and meaningful insights, or, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might call it, an opportunity to get into flow—a state of meaningful balance and connection with the world around you. He says that “a person who gets rarely bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life. If being alone is seen as a chance to accomplish goals that cannot be reached in the company of others, then instead of feeling lonely, a person will enjoy solitude and might be able to learn new skills in the process.” He goes on to state his concern that people who aren't able to productively cope with flow—particularly those who, as children and adolescents, never had moments of solitary creativity and didn't learn how to be productive in isolation-will struggle to have fulfilling lives that create a sense of peace and happiness. But if two such “rarely bored” individuals come together and sit in a car for an extended period of time, will an elevation occur, or will spontaneous combustion happen? If we both are in flow, what invisible divinity might be swimming about our bodies, crashing and fusing into one another, the trees, the fields, the roads, connecting us all as if strung upon one thread.
It isn't for at least fifteen minutes of driving that this peaceful tension begins to lose its grip, and only as a result of a loaded dump truck pulling out in front of us from a blind driveway causing Mom to break hard.
“Would you look at that jerk!” she exclaims after slowing down to within a few feet of the truck's back end. “Didn't even stop to look, did he?” I am waking. I simply mumble “uh-uh” with my mouth half closed, partially oblivious to what's happened. She has both her hands on the wheel now, and seeing no opportunity to pass on this two lane country road, she settles in a hundred feet behind. It's a few more minutes, and my mom is fully awake to the world.
“I hope it won't be too cold at the nursery.” She pauses, carefully stepping out of herself as if out of a bath tub or over some jagged rocks on a shoreline. “I just can't believe it's summer.” She pauses, then goes on. “And now this weather is like this when you're here. We get so few months of green anyway.” A moment. “Sometimes I wonder how long we'll stay up here—your dad is tired of the winters.”
Mom is riling me up, now, subtle but purposeful. “But don't the winters make you appreciate the other seasons so much more?” I have to speak up and make a stand any time this issue comes up. I must defend my homeland, I must defend what I miss. Besides, they just moved from my childhood home last fall—a gut-wrenching experience even from 400 miles away in Nebraska—would they move again so soon, and how far? Are they trying to get back at their three kids for living distant lives? Every time I visit, it's generally the same conversation, but more and more, Mom is beginning to think like Dad.
“Well, sure, of course. And I really do enjoy winter—it can be so beautiful, especially around Christmas. But it does get to be too long, and the roads can get pretty bad.” Oh no, Mom! You're starting to sound like Grandma. What is this? You're afraid of the roads? This isn't my Wisconsin native, Motor Trend reading mother. But there must be a desire to finally become rooted—not only to place, but a way of being that is totally comfortable. Not safe, but more forgiving, more elastic. Maybe for my mom it was the east coast—a place they always mention.
“I've always thought the snow plows do a pretty darn good job, Mom.” I think I'm starting something. Maybe she started talking too early, maybe I was so lost in my own train of thought, one of my ever more infrequent and restorative daydreams I never allow time for, but I feel interrupted and upset by it. “Just don't drive a rear wheel car, you'll be fine.” I snap out two sentences, and as is often the case, I'm sure they sound more biting than I imagined them in my head; I have a tendency to this, people say. At least she understands it and goes back into herself for a while without a second thought. She's the same way.
I think my mom taught me flow, or at least the ability to be silently creative and seek out moments of solitude for my own good. First, by commanding her children not to bounce on the couch as we watched television. Bouncing was often defined as scratching an ear or crossing your arms in any motion faster than a meandering snowflake. Eventually, mom got the whole couch to herself because no one could sit that still—it required a state of Zen Buddhist meditation to sit as lightly as she demanded. But I enjoyed the challenge, nonetheless, and eventually lasted the longest of anyone. Second, there were also periods in the day where the house had to be quiet—no drawers slamming, no footsteps, no yelling, no playing basketball on the driveway. We had to find creativity in mundane and quiet acts-like organizing baseball cards, playing with Legos, folding clothes, or reading a book. Usually, these centered around afternoon naps, often necessitated by current or previous migraines, or a terrible night's sleep due to symptoms of protracted and intense menopause that must have lasted at least a decade. Perhaps Mom never achieved a sense of balance or connection in these required moments of isolation and stillness, but she taught me fear, a good kind of fear, one that respects the power of the unknown, of darkness and distance, of my own thoughts in a world absolutely overloaded to the hilt with perception and perceiving.
We travel another few minutes in silence, my mom's hand in her lap again, the left at ten o'clock. We turn and let the truck continue on its way.
“Would you really move from Minnesota? I mean, if you did, where would you go?” I'm awake. I'm awake now.
“Oh, I don't know. We've always talked about South Carolina, maybe northern Florida.”
“Ahhhh….” I begin. “You're going to retire with all the other silverbacks.”
“We are NOT going to retire or act old or be old.” Mom snaps back fast. “We just might want to live somewhere warmer, and I've always thought it might be beautiful to live in South Carolina, especially along the coast.”
“Hurricanes have a tendency to visit those places, you know.” I feel I must mention this, both for the fact that I'd like my parents to live a good long while, and because I'd prefer that to be in Minnesota where my geographical and psychological anchor is.
“Sure, they do. You just have to be smart about it, I suppose.” And then, without any further adieu, warning, or waste of trivial conversation—it has served its purpose, after all, hasn't it—my mother asks this: “So, how's it going, being married and all.” Ok, here we go then. I know the routine.
“It's good.” I must say this either too fast, or with a rising cadence on that second syllable, making it almost seem like a question, like, shouldn't it be, why wouldn't it be?
“You guys are settling in ok? The first year is the toughest.”
“Well, it's not easy. There are good days, there are bad days.” Oh no, I'm in it now. Hole dug, time to get in. My mom glances over at me, turns the radio down. What is she doing? “I mean, we both are fairly headstrong, and we were used to living on our own, doing things our own, specific way for so many years. I remember that even combining our pots and pans and figuring out where they'd go in the kitchen was a battle.”
“But you probably did that in the turmoil of having just moved, the wedding, all of that.”
“Well, sure.” I say, thankful for this out, an explanation that doesn't make me feel so bad about such a small event. “And I know I'm not the easiest person to live with, let alone navigate. I'm pretty emotional or something.”
“I know what you mean. Your dad says the same thing about me. He says I'm not like the woman he married, but I am. Just leave me alone when I ask you to, pay attention, and it will all be fine. I've always been like that.” Amazingly, this helps me immensely. It takes her saying these things to more fully, no, more clearly, comprehend that how I act—though not always as graciously as I should—is a product or reflection of how my mom is. This isn't an excuse, but it's at least a definition that helps me understand or cope with feelings of shame, self doubt, confusion, anger even. I'm not sure if I'm “moody” or “melancholy” by nature or design; I might just be a jerk. I don't know. I need my space. I need to know that how I am is ok. My mother is being a mother, loving me unequivocally.
“Just remember,” she says, “it isn't what you say so much as how you say it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I think sometimes your father thinks I'm simply being rude. Maybe I sound too terse, I don't know. I just don't like being interrupted. He usually comes up to me and wants to gab when I'm in the middle of cooking or watching a show or balancing the checkbook or reading an article. He always does this and never learns. But he's always needed more social interaction than me, anyway, and I wish I could be that person, but I'm not.” She puts both her hands on the wheel now, follows the road's curve around a lake where dead trees, standing in a marshy end, mimic the telephone polls a few dozen feet away. On the other side of the road is a very tall poll on top of a small hill—it clears the tree line, and has on top of it the overflowing nest of a bald eagle. From there they can see for miles I'm sure, but they also get the full brunt of any passing storm. Why put one's self in such a vulnerable position, if only for a relatively few moments in one's life? Why do we build houses on eroding beaches where hurricanes are prone to land? Why do we move away from our families and the places we love and feel whole in? Why do we not feel comfortable in our skins even on good days? How is life, seemingly, both a continual casting away, molting of ourselves, and gathering, like a snowball rolling down a hill? I wonder, do two such contradictions cancel each other out, so that by the time we've lived our lives, we are the same as when we came in?
Psychologist Erich Fromm says that “the whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born when we die.” So it would seem that in some strange circle, being physically born has little do with being spiritually or psychologically born—and yet they meet in the end. Living is an act of letting one's self be more and more vulnerable. It's risk, but it's also faith that what is supposed to accrue in you is right, is maybe even perfect, and embracing the darkness and pain around us is to find and embrace the light—it's yin and yang, I suppose, as the Chinese believe, the unity of opposites in our perception of the natural world.
I come back to what my mom has alluded to, about patience and learning, because I think that's what she's getting at. Through my life, through watching me evolve as it were, my mother is reclaiming her own body, her sense of self and what she's lost or missed out on, just as much as I am discovering my own self. Launched out from the places we know, through time and familiarity and experiences both good and bad, we are forced to either discover our way in the world as homeless, or rediscover our homes-the places we are from and should be from again and that we innately carry with us.
“Mom?” I ask after she starts talking about her own marriage a little. “Are you glad you married Dad?” She twitches her nose a little, seems to readjust her focus on the road ahead, thinks about it, then answers quickly.
“It certainly hasn't been a picnic-but yes, I am. We've made lots of good memories, especially with you kids.” She's reframed the question at least in her answer, shifted it back to me, away from her—again, probably not even aware of it. I never press the issue, though it comes up much more in my mind than in actual conversation. I think she's tired, I think she's worn a little, the least of which is that the day before I was married, my grandmother had been in a horrific car accident only a mile from the church on her way to rehearsal. She was in the passenger seat, her brother driving, when he ran a stop sign—an oncoming car hit her side dead on. The paramedics took half an hour just to get a backboard behind her, and the glass shards in her ear and face left gridlines of blood down her arm. The many surgeries to repair a broken shoulder, made more fragile by her osteoporosis, have been minor compared with the brain trauma, which in itself has only suddenly irritated with vigor the latent, early stages of Alzheimer's.
For me, it's now more important than ever that memory, that understanding my world, my place and the places I come from, be etched out in stone. If I am one of my mother's best memories, so be it, makes sense—and what responsibility I then have. But do I need to know about her relationship with Dad, about her relationship with her parents? Do I really? What am I gaining, what am I losing, what am I giving birth too? I know I can handle it, but I don't know if my mom can, giving me her memories not like burdens or gifts, but as if taking me along as a docent, walking among them, smelling and tasting and feeling them as a respectful visitor to a garden, rooted and immovable objects with lives and memories all their own—but as real as this silent moment now, driving to the nursery, the cold wind, the hum and then trip of the tires over concrete sections of roadway, the sudden country turns in front of someone's house who you imagine living much like you, and yet unimaginably different.
Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill, I get that from both my parents. I privately obsess, I box things in, I withhold my perceptions, unhinge my yin and yang, not because I'm afraid of being found out, made vulnerable (well, maybe I am), but because I don't want to lose the power of those reflections, to have them be dispersed or diffused thinly, wasted, etched in sand instead of rock, forgotten. I am more aware of this protective nature now then I've ever been, and I see it in my mom's gripping the steering wheel, her focused concentration, the loud silence we've made that recharges us, helps us see further out into the world around us yet leaves us insulated and separate.
Whether it's genetic or environment, I am my mother, I am my family and my place. Halfway to the nursery I comment on the fact there's a new highway being extended so far out west, and we go from there, talking about school, her last child getting close to college, about what to have for lunch—small things and large things tossed in with moments of silence.
When we arrive at Ambergate, we're surprised to find a deeply-rutted dirt driveway snuggled between two newer housing divisions of large homes. The path leads through a small field to a stand of trees some hundred yards off the road. It's a one way road, and once in the trees and brush there's no room to pull over if you meet someone, but we don't. No one's here. The drive opens to a large circular clearing—compost piled in the middle, with flats of plants on the ground circling it like some shrine. It's strange. It's raw. In the back of the acreage-and surely their property taxes are enormous as they hold out in the face of suburban sprawl—is a ten by ten foot pitched party tent, yellow and white striped where the owners, a middle-aged couple, are potting up plants. There's a small truck pulled up to it, cords coming out the back, so I assume there's a generator in there and a cash box. Another truck sits in the brush fifty feet away, all four tires flat, the front cab filled with cardboard boxes.
Stepping out of the car my mom exclaims, “what the heck have we gotten ourselves in to!?” It's not so much the number of plants, but the organization—this place doesn't appeal to house wives or the occasional gardener looking for mums or daylilies, you wouldn't find those things here. Ambergate has a massive amount of native perennials, some I'd never heard of—flowers that I'm sure mail order buyers drool over. After over an hour of wandering and getting our bearings, not even picking up one plant we are so overwhelmed, we discover there are several hundred more plants off in one corner under a stand of trees that overlook a small pond filled with geese. It takes a long time to get familiar with the plants and the layout, then trying to remember where we saw this or that. I feel like a goldfish swimming in a plastic baggie floating in an outdoor pool-I first have to get acclimated to a new way of being, a new environment, a bigger world.
As soon as we start our serious browsing, Mom immediately says, “you can go off on your own, you don't need to follow me.” At first, I think she means I don't have to follow her like a little boy-the momma's boy I'd always been-or I can do what I want, it's ok. Then, after forcing myself to go a new direction, I realize maybe she wanted to be alone. It was enough to be here with me, to have me near, two silent people, mother and son, in awe and rapture at the multitude of plants. Maybe she's still being a mother, simultaneously pulling me close and pushing me away—letting me stretch my wings, as it were. I can't imagine what it's like being a parent—overjoyed at the birth of your child, the pleasure of watching them learn to smile, talk, walk, explore the small things in life you take for granted and so rediscover with them. Then, that sudden change, the first day your child doesn't need you to tie a shoe or get a glass—the first day they tell you to leave them alone, they can do it. Then especially when they leave for kindergarten, college, the church to be married, it must be a wrenching pride and sorrow; go have your dreams, make mine come true.
I catch glances of Mom across the flats, around the compost and sunken truck. She's in her own world, stooping down to read plant tags, navigating the tight rows. Suddenly, she looks up, throws her hand in the air and yells, “Benj, when you get a chance, you've got to come over here and see this.” I make my way, briefly stopping at a plant that catches my eye, and we both marvel at the discovery, her saying she's getting two, and I might as well get one for the garden my wife and I are beginning in Nebraska—she's buying.