Thursday, March 17, 2011

Aroostook County, Maine

On the bus yesterday, I rode eight hours up from Boston, watching the snow accumulate along the sides of the road. Piles and piles of it, growing along the highway. Here, in Aroostook County, the biggest county east of the Mississippi and the northernmost county of the continental United States, spring is a long way away. I went for a walk today, trying to balance my body on the crust of ice atop the four feet of snow. When I postholed, breaking through the crust to the soft stuff underneath, the snow came above my knee.

It’s beautiful up here. Today, as I walked the sky turned lavender as the wind changed. Even a quarter of a mile into the woods, I could be hundreds of thousands of miles away from the nearest civilization. It feels like I am. I’m writing in a little office, a view out the window of the snow and the pines, but with no idea how I’m going to connect this to the internet. I’m hoping to set up a dial-up internet connection. (If I’m posting it, it’s because I have.) Doing it old school. Cause that’s just how I roll.

This was the point of coming up here. Among the points. Solitude and silence are a writer’s lifeblood. I’m hopeful, given enough time and silence, that I’ll be able to accomplish something extraordinary.

One of things I’ve been reading, or was reading before I came up to the frozen north, was the biographies of Nobel Prize winners on the internet. It’s an odd thing to do, I know. I’ve always been a compulsive prize follower. I back-check Original Screenplay Academy Awards every year the Oscars roll around. When he found me poring over my encylopedia’s list of the Pulitzer Prizes for fiction, my dad said I should rethink my degree in chemical engineering.

There have been only four women writing fiction in English to win the award: Pearl Buck, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Doris Lessing. Shockingly, all of them were products of two cultures, the marriage creating a third culture, its own. Pearl Buck was the child of missionaries in China, thrown out by the Boxer Rebellion, and she spent her life writing novels about China and the intersection of Asian culture with the west. Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing were both raised in countries that were not their own—Gordimer in South Africa and Lessing in Iran. They both spent their adult lives wandering, hunting for a home, and interpreting their experiences through their fiction.

Morrison inhabited her own space as an African-American writer, finding that space on either end of the hyphen in the divided word. It’s bold of me to claim that she inherits the assignation of a third culture, but more and more as I read my favorite African-American writers they find that same space where Morrison lives, balancing the demands of their home culture and the alien culture in which they live. That’s the tension that occupies her as a writer. “I don’t belong here,” she says. “I don’t belong anywhere else, so I have to stay here. You can’t tell me this home is mine.”

It’s encouraging for me to look at these writers, and have a moment of recognition. They were successful as writers and as women precisely because they didn’t belong. Precisely because they occupied that place of homelessness. They found that tension and they lived inside of it and they used it to create art. Instead of fighting against the feelings of loneliness, of loss at leaving a place I loved, I can use those feelings to inform my work. The point is to transform the woundedness, to come through it, and to end up on the other side in great joy.

As Toni Morrison herself so eloquently said, "My project rises from delight, not disappointment."


Ginnie said...

One of the exercises in Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" was to list my five favorite movies, then identify what they had in common. It took me a long time to recognize the pattern, but when I did, I noticed that each movie dealt with the intersection of two cultures. I can think of no more powerful force in human history than the intersection of cultures. That "hyphen" as you term it, causes pain but also is an opportunity for insight. A person living in the hyphen is not blinded by the assumptions of either culture. I look forward to reading more of your extraordinary writing.

Melissa said...


Thank you so much for your amazingly insightful comment. I feel like my whole life has been spent in the space represented by that hyphen, which can be a painful place to be. You're right, though, that such a place is the most powerful force in human history.

I also look forward to reading your extraordinary writing. All love to you and my Chattanooga friends.


Ellen D. said...

It is interesting that you arrived in Maine on the eve (almost) of the solstice. At least the days are longer than the nights now.

Audra said...

It is interesting to me that you identify yourself as a "prize follower". I wonder what your thoughts are on enjoying the journey and working toward goals. The Bible talks about rewards in heaven and has restricting jobs for people within the church: musician, high priest, king (not striving toward someone else's job). People in the Bible seem to be striving toward bettering themselves and being recognized for it. You are very interested in prizes... perhaps shadowing desire for recognition or to be a person who has "made it". God hands out crowns in heaven. Pure works will not burn up as chaff. On the other hand, Yoga has a montra of being "in the moment" and the Bible talks about standing in aw of God (not exactly striving toward something outside of the moment). It is a lot to meditate on.

Melissa said...

I find both comments interested--yes, I keep thinking about the equinox, and what it means for the change in the weather, and yes, I do continue to wonder what it means to seek for approval from the outside world. I think there's a balance, for artists--a need to have one's audience respond to the work, but also a need to find internal fulfillment.