by Larkin Vonalt
It isn’t writer’s block, quite. In fact, the word counts make me look entirely productive: more than 5000 over the span of two nights. And when I say “over the span of two nights,” that’s exactly what I mean. This morning I went to bed at 7 am. Yesterday it was 6:30 a.m. Both times I fell asleep in absolute defeat. I have wrestled the essay two nights running and I am losing.
I want to write about why I live where I live. In the 1970s, “Why I Live Where I Live” was a regular column in Esquire Magazine, each one featuring a different writer. I read them avidly. The two that stick with me are those written by Annie Dillard and Harry Crews, both of whom lived in places where I too had lived. I’m not sure you would have recognized either place if they hadn’t named them. In the course of trying to coax the piece into shape, I re-read Harry’s column. It rambles all over the place too. Esquire notwithstanding, maybe it’s the topic that doesn’t work. Still, just like a dog with her teeth into something, I don’t want to let go.
Where we live is sometimes dictated by necessity, sometimes by whim. (Occasionally you have to wonder if fate intervenes. Why did I pick up and move to Montana, a place I’d never even visited? And then I was stuck there. For years.)
Whether or not you are at home there is at the heart of the matter. I chose Montana and lived there 18 years, but I was never a Montanan. I spent a decade in Boston, but found no peace there. However that city influenced me, it’s since washed off like a watercolor. (Well, maybe some driving habits remain.) I wasn’t even a citizen of the one place that did feel like home, and couldn’t claim it as anything but borrowed. My whole life was like something out of Goldilocks. Too hard, too soft, too small, too large, too hot, too cold. Until now.
So why can’t I write about it? I love this town, but when I try to organize those thoughts on paper, they read like something creative from the Chamber of Commerce. When I try to talk about how we came to be here, the essay takes on that terrible pedestrian narrative – “and then, and then, and then.”
Harry Crews said one of the reasons he lives in Gainesville is because three hours away there’s really good fishing. I like horse racing, but I don’t live in Dayton because it’s three hours from the Kentucky Derby. If “really good fishing” was the criteria for living somewhere, you’d think Harry would have moved closer to the beach. Of course, he lived in Gainesville because he taught there, just as we live here because we chose the extraordinary public performing arts high school for our son.
Why I think I’ll stay for ever and always is a whole different question. And for that matter, Harry has long retired from the University of Florida, and yet he lingers quite near there, in Melrose. I lived Gainesville as well; three times. In utero, as a little girl from age 2 to 6 and again when I was 17, and I returned for college. I don’t go near Gainesville now, it’s clearly my geographical tar baby and I’m terrified I might get stuck. And when I left there in 1980, I didn’t even glance back.
I did take a couple of classes from Harry Crews, though. They were upper-level creative writing courses and I never should have been allowed to sign up. Lucky me the computer didn’t kick me out and neither did Harry. We used to meet at night. We’d have an assignment to read and then we’d talk about it. We’d turn in our papers to Harry and he’d return those that were already graded. I don’t think we ever talked about each other’s writing, and so much the better. We really only cared what Harry thought. One night, after we’d read Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” he asked me to tell the class what I thought about it. So I told them. “A brilliant story,” I said, “but I didn’t really care for it.” (Which I still think is an entirely legitimate opinion.)
Well, Harry was on that like white on rice. “Didn’t care for it! Little Miss Coed here doesn’t care for the great Kafka!” And so on. Really, I suppose I should have figured that it would have been one of Harry’s favorites. I’d read all his novels in high school, and a love for Kafka should have come as no surprise. I sat there and listened while he raved and tried not to cry.
At the break, I went up and asked for my story. If you didn’t pick up your work, he threw it out.
“Oh yeah. The one with the people wandering around in the middle of the night.” He shuffled through a few more papers. “Here it is.” I could see he’d marked it with a B. He paused, though, before handing it over. Leaning back in his chair he looked at me as if he was seeing me for the first time.
“Are you kin to Larry Vonalt? He drew the word “kin” out three beats.
“Yes, I’m his daughter.” Harry slapped the desktop so hard people in the room jumped.
“Well, how the hell is he??!! We were the dearest of friends. You tell him, you tell him the next time you talk to him, you tell him Harry Crews sent his luvvvv.”
Well, I did tell him of course, and my father called Harry and they had a fine old time rekindling their graduate school friendship. What I learned from Harry over the next two semesters was how to not flinch. It has served me well. I wish I could learn from him now how to say why I live where I live.
Why do I live where I live? There’s the history of course– the brothers Wright and their bicycles, their friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar and his poems. Jane Reese and her camera, John Patterson and his rowboats (yes, yes cash registers too) Esther Price and her chocolates. There’s the Federal Courthouse where Lincoln spoke, and damn near every president after him. There are the 3000 creches at the University of Dayton and the 104,000 inhabitants of Woodland Cemetery, itself a National Historic Landmark. Every mover and shaker Dayton ever had is buried there– but the most visited grave is that of a boy and his dog.
There are the long straight boulevards of fine houses and the cobblestone streets, and the river, like a great grey ribbon curling through the town. Great old industrial sites dot the town, factories and warehouses and great hulking ruins. There are fountains in the river and a skating rink in a park downtown and a baseball stadium where the minor league team boasts the longest sell-out record of any professional sports team. Colored lights flicker underneath the bridges.
I lost my dog here for nine days. Everyone wanted to help: letter carriers, A.T. & T. repair crews, UPS, the Police Department, the Sheriff’s office, college students, homeless men and women. A local mover and shaker wrote about her in his blog. Days went by without a word. It was like she’d fallen off the edge of the earth. The hardest call each day was to street maintenance, to see if they’d found her body. When she was finally spotted, five miles across town in a wooded area behind the Hospice, nearly the entire staff became involved in our reunion. I’ll never forget the euphoria that swept over me as she raced into my arms, and I’ll never forget the UPS man dancing a little jig on my front porch that afternoon, upon hearing the good news. “The guys are gonna be so happy to hear this, we’ve all been looking for her.” When I brought pastries to the hospice to thank them again on the anniversary of her return, the whole story was written up (badly, but it was a sweet gesture) in the Dayton Daily News as if the return of a lost dog is a story that ought to be newsworthy. Something like that can make you partial to a town.
Just a few weeks ago they named one of the bridges across the Great Miami River the Richard Holbrooke Memorial Bridge after the late American diplomat. In 1995, Holbrooke brokered a peace treaty here in Dayton that ended the Balkan conflict. He wrote about Dayton in his memoirs:
There was also a real Dayton out there, a charming Ohio city, famous as the birthplace of the Wright Brothers. Its citizens energized us from the outset. Unlike the population of, say New York, Geneva or Washington which would scarcely notice another conference, Daytonians were proud to be part of history. Large signs at the commercial airport hailed Dayton as the “temporary center of international peace”. The local newspapers and television stations covered the story from every angle, drawing the people deeper into the proceedings. When we ventured into a restaurant or a shopping center downtown, people crowded around, saying that they were praying for us. Warren Christopher was given at least one standing ovation in a restaurant. Families on the air base placed “candles of peace” in their front windows, and people gathered in peace vigils outside the base. One day they formed a “peace chain”, although it was not quite large enough to surround the sprawling eight-thousand-acre base.
When I read that out loud to my husband, I have to stop for a second to regain my composure. Why should that make me cry? It’s not sad. That’s Dayton for you. Not always the most sophisticated, perhaps, but hopeful and optimistic and caring. Even when the city keeps getting cut off at the knees– the departure of GM was dreadful, but NCR leaving by far the worst betrayal. (No doubt John Patterson rolled over in his grave several times.) Even when that happens, the city is like a scrappy little terrier– up on its feet and ready to go.
But when I try to write about it I get tangled up in keeping all the details straight and carefully drawing each line on the dot-to-dot. I try to keep my own story in there as well– after all, it’s supposed to be why I live here, not why those other 142,000 do. (Or a million if you want to count the outlying areas.)
I’d like to tell the story of the drunk guy that helped us unload the moving truck the hot August night we arrived here, or the woman who lived across the alley from us and her beautiful daughter and how the daughter died one night while they were making dinner. Or the man across the street who helped us carry a treadmill up the stairs and the stricken figure of a dog to the car, has cut the grass, strung the lights, and borrowed every tool we have, all the while keeping us apprised on neighborhood gossip. There are still so many things I don’t want to forget. But I just can’t seem to make the words cooperate.
It’s nights like that where my skill as a writer is less than useful. The sentences are pretty. They scan well. The metaphors are clever or apt. But it’s all so boring I can hardly stand to read it out loud to myself. Two nights of that is about enough to make me wild with despair.
Now comes the question of what to do? This experiment, this 30 Days Notice, was supposed to be neatly tied up and put away two days ago, on the 30th. I cannot seem to climb over this one piece and there are still two more lying in wait on the other side. Am I supposed to just give up and walk away after devoting two days of my life to it? Or should I go on wrangling the sentences until at last they move forward together? Maybe I just say forget it about the other two stories and move on to the next thing, closing down 30 Days Notice two days overdue instead of four?
I needed breathing room to sort it out. I used to sleep on this sort of thing, but I’m so exhausted by the time I fall into bed in the morning, that the sleep is hard and dreamless.
So today I let myself breathe a bit, hugging my sides like an exhausted runner, and I made some decisions.
I’m going to save “Why I Live Where I Live” for another project. It may take 10,000 words to tell that story. Or a hundred thousand. There will be one more piece here tomorrow and after that, a little wrap-up. And though the curtains are coming down on this show, I’ve left the stage door open– and I’ll leave a note with directions to the next theatre. One of these days I’ll figure it out, and then I’ll tell you how it is that I came home at last.