Thursday, May 10, 2012

Some River Twice

Because it's not the same river, right? But it's a river all the same--another river, or the same pebbled bank on a different day, or the same water, further down stream.

I recently participated in a writing workshop with Gary Soto--even better, I went as my daughter's guest; a workshop spot was part of her winnings in a local writing contest. One prompt asked us to write about a river journey, point A to point B: what do you see?

Iguazú turtles (with bird)
I see the Red Cedar River, Mother's Day in Michigan and hot, our first big spring outing of the year. Just being outside, doing something outside: that's my mother's present. 

We're old enough to paddle two canoes--one kid, one parent each--up from the university rental dock. The turtles are out, the spring pollen is itchy, but here's the rub of memory: what I remember most are the turtles, baking their shells to summer hardness on logs or rocks, and the four of us in our hollow aluminum logs, burning rather than basking, because who remembers sunscreen, the second week in May? But were the turtles really out, so early in the year? I'm brought up short. 

We canoed later on in summer--maybe that's the source of my persistent memory of turtles. I can't think of the river without them. The scents I remember are the sweet sneezy haze of spring and the mildewed sigh of the orange lifejackets, also from the rental barn, last summer's damp that never dried out drawing a still underlayer to the spring heat smell, the drying mud.

Swimming near Wheatland Ferry
I haven't been on the Michigan State campus in years; I don't know if the canoe rental's still in place. But that was the first river that came to mind, like a slide flashing up on a wall of the library conference room. No need to elbow aside other, more recent rivers. They weren't even overlaid, one image crossing another. But now that I'm thinking about rivers, I'll list a few more: several times a week, I run beside the grandiosely-named Amazon Creek. That's not a river, I know. Once the rains really stop for summer, it will be scarcely be a creek. But the water's cloudy as milky tea after a storm, it sloshes against its banks, tempts nesting ducks. Point A to point B, I'm on the towpath, not navigating, but the watercourse suggests a route. Then there's swimming with my son near the ferry docks further north, or watching the fast, empty cereal ships cruising up the Paraná. Most recent basking turtles: just above Iguazú Falls in November. I was even there with my mother. 

I pulled out my little workshop notebook (more treats, more prizes), looking to retrieve that first river version. Like any revisited, reopened manuscript, it's a little different than I remembered. Some images are clearer, others are vague. It's a river all right, but it's not the same one. Still, it's what I have to work with. I'll just dip in a toe--over here, where the murk starts to clear with the current.

Happy Mother's Day!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May memories, Mayhap, May help

When I was little--four or five--we used to hang May Baskets from the doorknobs of elderly neighbors. My mother instigated this, of course, but I enjoyed filling the construction paper cones with garden flowers, placing the surprise, ringing the bell and running away. It's not a tradition I ever tried to continue with my children. They're too old to appreciate it now, but it strikes me that, pleasant as those May Day memories have always been--and I can still see the stone porch back in central New York, across the street from my best friend's house, up the block from ours, pale green trim and maybe gables; I can see myself on that porch, arranging my offering, hurrying away--it never really occurred to me to "try this at home," so to speak. Granted, our elderly neighbors when my daughter was four frankly disliked us, disapproving of our lawn mowing skill, or lack thereof. Still, the elderly part isn't an absolute requirement, and we did have other neighbors, more forgiving. Double nostalgia then, my own childhood long gone and my children's littlehood, too.

I observed this spring morning on my own. Grayish sky, hint of sun--just a hope of that bright sun against gray velvet clouds  and sharp pink plum trees that I love at this time of year. When I set out to run, it was almost warm (not warm enough for shorts, but I realized that too late to turn back and change). Ducking under the neighbors' full-bloomed apple tree as I headed down the hill, I remembered I had dreamed last night that I was pulling snails off a fruit tree still in bloom. Anyone who has gardened in Oregon will understand this dream, this waking nightmare, this continual struggle. . . never mind. I dreamed a spring dream, and along with it, a cry for help. 

So mayday, not just May Day. My dictionary gives the definition of this international distress signal as the French (venez) m'aider, (come) help me! Who knew? (Not me, obviously). A not-quite translation, a homophonic or sound translation--historically, as David Bellos notes in Is that a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, a rich source of vocabulary growth as languages come into contact and their speakers try to mimic foreign words using the closest sounds they can muster from their own experience. Turns out, again, translation is everywhere.

Including the eye of the beholder. Later, out the bus window on the way to work, I watched a woodpecker pecking away at one of the small, tasteful signs the city places to urge trail users to "leash pets" and "obey scoop laws." A kind of live underscoring, subtitling as highlighting. But I've also seen (and heard) the woodpecker--presumably a different woodpecker; it was a different spring--attacking the STOP sign down the road, the gong of its beak meeting metal louder than any distress call.

Message here? I'm not sure. But it's spring, hope springs eternal, memory and mayhem and possibility dancing 'round the May pole, one big happy family. Happy May Day, everyone!