Displaced Norma Marder I Its outer sameness concealed its inner surprise. —Janet Frame, Towards Another SummerI have lost my place, transplanted from a tiny island to the mainland, from a village where my roots lie forty years deep to a village of friendly strangers, from the open sea to a river, from wild forests and surf to a nature preserve of mowed meadows and manicured trails. From a place where nature rules to a place where the human hand lies on everything. Monhegan is my fixed spot in a changing world. A spruce-covered dot eleven miles out to sea, with high cliffs, cathedral woods, and wild beauty. I lived there without electricity, lugging groceries uphill, hiking lumpy trails. Forty summers promised eternity, but Herbert’s spine is mortal—prophetic, I hate to admit, for both of us. So we succumb to modern comforts now, renting a house in Newcastle across from an old cemetery by the Damariscotta River. Smooth ground; a house with electricity. The nature preserve lies up the street, the village down the street. Herbert can walk for miles. On the island, I walked to Gull Cove every morning with notebook and camera, clambering down granite ledges to a chair of mica-spotted rocks, facing crashing waves and monumental cliffs. After weeks of testing writing spots by the river, like Goldilocks testing beds, I find this tiny pebbled beach near a boat landing. Marsh grass fringes the water. A gnarled oak and an old pine cling to the base of a bluff, their trunks forking from exposed, tangled roots. I sit on the one flat rock, photographing, scribbling, weighed down. Traffic whooshes in the distance, cars across the Damariscotta bridge, a white furniture store is reflected among clouds. The human hand weighs on nature—delicate as a spiderweb it weighs, and heavy as the wrinkled rock by my foot, squashed as the magma cooled or scraped by the glaciers. A small blue heron skims the river, leaving a neat tattoo of splashes. Acorns plop in the water, the tide seeps away from pebbles. Leaf shadows and pinhole lights flicker on rocks. I get to know these rocks by photographing them—that is the narrow vision, the pinpoint. River, trees, and sky—that is the broad vision. Where is the deep vision? On a global scale, this displacement weighs nothing. But a lonely wail rises from the stubbled field of childhood, spiraling like a distant saxophone. I miss friends and neighbors, village gossip, the ease and variety of belonging. A chipmunk perches on the wrinkled rock, its delicate claws gripping the edge. Its tiny mouth, barely open, produces an amazing, penetrating chirp. I look into its round black eyes, and it looks back, bold and unfathomable. I reach for the camera; the chipmunk flees. The Damariscotta is a drowned river valley estuary, a ten-mile finger of the sea. Currents reverse, flowing upstream and downstream, saltwater dancing with freshwater. High tide, low tide; incoming, outgoing. A mysterious quadrille. High tide now. I sit above the beach, on tree-shaded steps, watching water ripple over pebbles and swirl around my flat rock. A small loss of place. My writing mind has been dead this summer, except for two weeks on Monhegan. When it died again in Newcastle, I e-mailed my oldest friend. She answered, “Leaving is a mourning for so many things: history love children . . . ,” and instantly I stood on the Laura B’s deck watching the island appear in the mist, holding the rail, feeling the cloak of winter drop away, Herbert and the kids in the prow. Monhegan holds a swath of our family’s life, summer connected to summer, a long movie unwinding. Emotion lurks everywhere. In the house we rented. In gulls on a rooftop, lighthouse beams, the foghorn, bunchberries. In library, museum, schoolhouse, cemetery. In ghosts of painters meeting the noon boat and gossiping by the post office. In traps and buoys, propane tanks, the wreck at Lobster Cove, Swim Beach. In one fringed gentian blooming under the weigela on each anniversary of Daddy’s death. Monhegan holds time. It holds our children’s lives, Herbert’s, Mama’s, our friends living and dead. Monhegan, isle of the dead, a mad composer said. And isle of the living, for the dead also live. Will they stay alive confined in my memory, without renewal on site? Such a tiny place, my mind. I depend on Monhegan, that living memory bank, to excite the past. Experiences flow in and out, activated, renewed, little buttons to events and people, the iPhoto of life—a density there, thicker, bluer, richer—tendrils and currents curling and rippling in all dimensions, layers of the past constantly, effortlessly alive. Away from the island all is memory, a poor thing, originating in and bounded by the self. Most of my deepest loves live on Monhegan in all their phases. Our sons’ imprints still lie on ditches and gravel, though ditches have been dug and redug since Michael was sixteen, and potholes filled with generations of gravel since Yuri was sixteen. Sunsets hold them playing Frisbee with Herbert in the tall grass on Lighthouse Hill. The sunporch table holds candlelit dinners with friends. Each room is an archive; kerosene lamps and plates are archives. People, houses, stores, headlands, boats, forests are living archives—touch them and pictures rise up. Pictures; here they are pictures. On Monhegan they are feelings that do not need names. And that difference makes me cry as I write this, and the chipmunk scurries past, acorns drop, grasses slide upstream, and ripples shiver the reflections of clouds and trees. I think that is the heart of being displaced. Memories freeze. On Monhegan they shift, unspoken, deeply felt, the common stuff of daily life. This is movement for me, the past alive in the present, the present alive in the past, everything jiggling and shifting. Loss of place imprisons me in the cage of memory. A heron squawks. The water glistens. Ripples widen around falling acorns. One acorn floats gently back and forth, its shadow haloed in light. A flat-bottom skiv appears offshore. A man and woman wave. An office chair stands in the stern, wooden crutches in the prow. “Just cruisin’,” the man says. No motor. He steers with the rudder, drifting upstream on the current. Water covers the beach all the way up to the bluff, everything drowned except a three-branched driftwood candelabra, mirrored in green water. Leaf reflections shiver in a pool of sky; the mystery of depth. Down there a drowned man twists and turns. He drowned on Swim Beach forty-five years ago; he keeps drowning. Memory churns down there, in the fermenting past. I photograph the noon sun floating in brown leaves. The drowned man’s back, floating in the harbor like a sand shark, was brown, the color of death. I grow old; I confess that, an absurd confession; I might as well say my hair is green. But facts are facts, and seventy-five is a fact. A heron squawks. A crow caws. Change means death. It has always meant death. A wind gust fractures the reflection of overhanging branches. Inverted clouds sail upriver, regal as clipper ships. Down among the clouds, black trees shiver like Van Gogh’s cypresses. My father died in a hospital on Long Island Bay in early August 1962. A year later, also in early August, a young man, an epileptic, drowned at Swim Beach. I saw him sunbathe, saw him dash into the freezing water, saw his body lying on the sand, bloody foam oozing from his mouth. Over the years, the drowning wormed its way into three novels. Of course I’m obsessed, I thought, it was the first death I ever saw. Recently I typed the opening sentence of a memoir: “It was the first death I ever saw.” Mental circuits screeched. The drowned man lay bathed in sunlight, and Daddy’s gleaming white-sheeted body on a white hospital bed slid over him like a photo transparency. My father. Hiding in the basket of the drowning story like Moses in the rushes. Deaths in August; deaths in or near the sea; crucial moments missed. The epileptic died while I was reading. Daddy died while Mama and I briefly stepped into the lounge. His death left a hole in the world. In my heart, I carried him to Monhegan, isle of the dead, and he took up residence along the Red Ribbon Trail. Summer after summer I sang Kaddish for him there, sensing him in a mossy log, a fallen tree, a crow, a spiderweb, a Monarch butterfly. When I wrote the story of the man who drowned at Swim Beach, when I wrote it again and again, my mind silting with grief, Daddy died again and again. A cyclical ritual, my soul making oblique memorials. Having carried him to Monhegan, does he anchor me there? A luminous possibility: my father, the strongest anchor. The binding power of absence, of loss, of a hole in the world. Sounds out of silent spaces, the voice in the whirlwind. The being we flesh out to embody the void. Waves ripple onto the sand, seeming to flow in while backing out. The chipmunk flees as I click the shutter; I catch places where it was. Does the tide influence the current? Rafts of grasses drift upstream on silky ripples. Writing in exile, let us look at that. Herbert and I live in Champaign, Illinois. It is home and not home. Home includes our house, close friends, communities, and various public spaces. Forty-four years in this flat Midwestern city—an architectural jumble, on a grid, neither well planned nor organic. It has pockets of beauty, of course, and a vibrant, diverse culture. But visually it lacks magic. One can live happily without magic—magic is a luxury. So I enjoy a state of permanent and comfortable exile, rooted and alienated. I still write from images, eyes closed, but not fantasy anymore; fiction and memoir share a domain. Do travel-loving artists have a point, that roots strangle the imagination as a tune worm strangles thought? A new energetic purpose drives the current. The river took a deep breath, reversed, and set out on parade, its wrinkled silk surface unfurling toward Boothbay Harbor, fresh water flowing out over incoming remnants of saline. A motorboat cuts the silk; big swells roll to shore; I rescue my camera. My convictions oscillate, slippery as Proteus. Change means death; displacement locks me in the cage of memory. Change means life; new places make me new. The sun feels fierce; I grab notebook, sack, and camera and switch to the steps. When I look up water laps at my stone. The current speeds, reversing falls churning, grasses sliding downstream. In a few minutes, my writing stone casts a dark reflection, and the water line, ruffled as a lettuce leaf, is edged in light. The tide has no relation to the direction of the current. The first day of autumn, leaves clinging to life in a cold wind. White-capped arrows fly upstream, eddies spiral to shore, midstream currents pass each other like people on escalators. A chainsaw drills away thought; shots echo downriver from the rifle range. I should have dressed for the weather instead of the weather report. The chipmunk consumes an acorn that seems too big for its mouth. It does not use its paws, just its lips and teeth. At home, at my desk, I watch a spider weave an invisible web outside the window, shuttling from center to perimeter—up and back, diagonally and back, down and back—pulling invisible threads. I write an e-mail, and when I look up, the spider weaves circles around the center. A few hours later, the spider sits and waits. II I feel webbed together with family and consequences, as though my choice will, our choice will, affect the web and ourselves in it. Not necessarily a bad feeling, seeking the next balance point in changing circumstances. —Ruth Emerson, 1996 Kayakers paddle upstream in bright boats. Our friends Ruth and Michael used to take wilderness kayak trips with Naomi and Rachel, our goddaughters. Ruth has Alzheimer’s. Her displacement churns under mine. Ruth and I met around the time of Daddy’s death. We were working in New York with the Judson Dance Theatre—she was a dancer and choreographer, I was a singer. Our husbands happened to get teaching jobs at the University of Illinois, and we carried Judson’s avant-garde ethos to Champaign-Urbana. We performed together and organized concerts, our families merging, my Michael and Yuri like cousins to her Naomi and Rachel. We juggled art and family, John Cage’s Musicircus and Thanksgiving dinners. She taught in the dance department and the community, founded a dance company, enjoyed the neighborhood coffee ladies. She had grown up in Urbana; her father had been a botany professor. Displacement for me was home for her. Her austerity and yearning for connection yielded elegantly structured pieces in which dancers approached, met, and passed without touching. They used ordinary movements, no flapping arms—she hated flapping arms. She hiked and swam and knit beautiful sweaters. A botanist’s daughter, she had strong opinions about trees. A moralist, she wrote brief, elliptical letters to the newspaper. She concealed more than she revealed, and there was beauty in that, in the space she made between herself and those she loved. Silence was her weapon of choice; she could be silent for days. I write this in past tense although she still lives, still mysteriously threaded to the world. After twenty years in Urbana, Michael accepted an endowed chair in physics at Simon Fraser, in Vancouver. I photographed Ruth bravely dancing on the moving-van ramp. They built a beautiful house overlooking a fjord and mountains. In early letters, Ruth says she teaches and choreographs but misses a community of experimental dancers. She grouses and apologizes for grousing. “Will I become invisible here if I stop waving my arms?” she asks. The day before Rachel’s wedding, Ruth and I walked down the street with baskets and gloves to cut roses from a neighbor’s overripe garden, reaching deep into the bushes for fresh blooms. The house filled with family and friends. At the reception, among young people gyrating on a crowded floor, she danced with her daughters. A few years later, when we visited after Naomi’s wedding, she prowled the house searching for her glasses and car keys. Michael said she was losing and forgetting things—said it cautiously, on the tip of anxiety. Ruth took me into her dance studio. An old carton stood on a couch, dented, flaps open, holding her dance archives, a year’s work. She bent over it, a lovers’ bond between her and the material—so difficult to find and organize—tenderly fingering choreography scores, programs, reviews, and photos, her dance life cradled in the frugal carton, disappointing now, drained of time and dimension. And slipping away. We spent the afternoon leafing through the life we shared in New York and Illinois, a vibrant life reduced to papers. We marveled, laughed, told stories. “I did it for Rachel and Naomi,” she said. Time leaked from her hands and the curve of her spine, a sacred circle in which past, present, and future linked themselves geometrically. Gathering and sorting, she rescued the past for her children and grandchildren, placing her archives beside the archives of illustrious ancestors, quietly affirming herself as an artist in a family that valued science and public service: I did this; it matters; I pass it on. Next day, the four of us sat in an MRI waiting room, discussing where to have supper after the test. Ruth followed a nurse and disappeared around a corner into the void that swallows a loved one having a medical procedure. We oscillated from trust to anxiety, and then she returned, and we saw that more than time had passed. Ruth was reduced, stony, as if she had been tortured. “No one told me it would be noisy,” she muttered angrily. Betrayed already by the future, she moved into it, shoulders hunched, and it marked her like a medicinal smell. The test showed white-matter lesions. She was only sixty-four. Medicines masked the symptoms. Her spatial sense remained excellent; she could drive, navigate, walk for miles. But her judgment deteriorated, and all change made her anxious. Names evaporated. She lost words. On the phone she laughed when she forgot something, a deep chuckle. I reminded her that she sounded like herself. Ruth and Michael visited us in early July 2005. Shocking to see her, on a hot evening, clutching her heavy red parka as if it were a teddy bear. The first day she looked stony, white circles under her eyes, mouth turned down, relearning our house. Next day she began her practice of solitary walks in ninety-four-degree heat, a sweater tied around her waist. After the walks, she cheerfully “put the kettle on” and drank a cup of plain boiled water. Sometimes she poured boiling water in a cup and forgot to drink it. Displaced from herself, but not entirely. “Give her binary choices,” Michael said. “Three options are too many.” Sitting at the table, eyes closed, she would suddenly open them and aptly puncture someone’s idea. “My mind is sending a picture,” she sometimes said, and told a story for the fourth time. I suppressed loss. We laughed, we hugged, we kissed. Gladness was Ruth coming down in the morning, giving me a big smile and a hug. Gladness was Ruth blossoming in our friend Bernard’s house, once owned by her father’s closest friend, a house she knew as a child. The moment she stepped in the foyer, her face lit up, her back straightened, and she was whole. She walked from room to room, elegant and gracious, describing winter parties and iced ginger cookies. Amazing to have the old Ruth with us for half an hour. “Guantanamo,” she cried one night at supper, head in her hands. “How can it go on so long, how can it go on so long?” She remembered the Japanese internment in California—she was a child—her father, a pacifist, ran a research project in Manzanar. “I saw my Japanese nanny,” she wept bitterly, “flattened against a chain-link fence, reaching out, trying to touch me.” She shook her head in disbelief. “How can it go on so long? How can it go on so long?” A cry from the heart of her own prison: how can it go on so long? I photographed her, sad and beautiful, photographed her long, graceful hands. She’ll commit suicide, I thought, focusing the lens. She’ll do it while she still sees the future. She’ll jump ov a cliv. Or drown—they will take an ocean kayak trip in August with two relatives—she could go out at night with stones in her pockets like Virginia Woolf. They look somewhat alike. Did she consider suicide? In some ways she was tolerant and accepting; that is, being less analytical, she was less aggravated. The last evening, Michael and I made lunch for the trip—one cheese sandwich for him, one peanut butter for her. Ruth came downstairs unexpectedly. She wanted two sandwiches for herself. She began handling bread, peanut butter, cheese, lettuce, and it was all too much, too many choices. She hunched over the counter, Michael standing by, helpless. She looked demented. Michael turned away and threw up his hands, flashing me a look that said, you see, that’s how it is. In the morning she looked like stone again. White circles under her eyes, silent, clutching her parka. In the airport, she kissed me and Herbert good-bye. “Denial,” a friend says about her aunt’s death. “I lived in denial and today it all blew out again.” Yes, denial. I lived in denial during their visit, and it blew out over the summer on Monhegan. Early August, in the wee hours of a black night, I got up, half asleep, to pee. I backed to the toilet and felt for it with my foot. No toilet. I inched back and wagged my foot again. Nothing. I turned around and bent over, patting air. Where was it? Turning again, I inched forward, groping for the sink, shocked to touch the fire extinguisher on the landing and, next to it, the bathroom door. Frozen in bed, I saw myself as Herbert would have seen me, poised backward at the edge of the steep staircase, wagging my leg across the void, an inch or a tremor away from crashing. Early September, finished photographing on a ledge at Gull Cove, I hoisted my backpack, took a step, and, as if on black ice, my legs rushed to the edge, and I fell. Time slowed. Is this how I’m going to die? I thought, and now? “No!” I screamed. I landed on rocks cushioned with trailing yew—a six-foot drop—to toll merely a broken finger and damaged knees. A few days after falling, I limped to Gull Cove with a stick. Ov the trail, a sunbeam illuminated a large triangular sheet web, shaped like a sailboat. Light shone on cordage, sails, and hull. The bottom heaved in the breeze. I noticed gaps in the sail threads, holes in the hull. The spider’s ship had traveled far, a ghost ship sailing on the breeze, its torn silvery bottom gently billowing, no longer seaworthy. At the edge; over the edge. Chaos had erupted with stern regularity, my doomsday clock ticking toward midnight, the eruptions satisfying a mysterious, sacrificial necessity. We select information, as we select memories. From fragments, mainly Michael’s e-mails, I see their life together. They walk several miles a day. They go to the movies and the library and read aloud to each other. She follows him around the garden. She washes the counter over and over. He enrolls them in a modern dance class, and everyone learns simple steps while Ruth dances beautifully in her own sphere. A friend comes regularly with her Irish harp, and they sing in her studio. She continues to sing in a chorus. He cooks and does the housework. She folds dirty laundry and wears clothes inside out. When Herbert and I call, Michael always hands her a phone. Sometimes she says a few words, sometimes she laughs. Michael. A physicist, a problem solver. His orderly universe crumbles, good no longer triumphs, plans collapse, madness trumps reason. Daily, for seven years, he deals with Ruth’s disintegrating personality. He sends eloquent e-mails. He says she wakes in the night, agitated, sometimes violent. He can’t sleep. “Hire help,” we say—we, Michael’s Greek chorus of daughters and friends. “Impossible,” he says. “I vowed to care for her myself.” “Sleep deprivation is killing you,” we say. He hires a caregiver. Then two caregivers. And when he risks losing his sanity, he hires three caregivers and sleeps in a neighbor’s house. One night at tooth-brushing time, Ruth says she wants to find a place to go away and live with people like herself. Does she mean dancers? Her dead parents? People with dementia? Michael makes an appointment with social services and visits nearby Alzheimer’s units. “A bed will open up in a few weeks,” he writes. “I can hold on.” The cemetery across the street slopes down to the river. Worn stones and monuments line up under magnificent old trees; shipbuilders and their families lie under oaks that may have talked with transcendentalists. Ruth knew trees; she read winter trees by their shapes. I measure the circumference of the biggest oak to learn its age—over two-hundred years, I think. Ruth would have liked its burls and zigzag limbs, its hollow eye and crusty bark, its wisdom. She would have danced with this tree, a tree among trees. The future slides into the present, and the present holds its breath. The clock ticks. Michael dreads the indeterminate moving day as he has never dreaded anything. Rachel tries, unsuccessfully, to speed the admission process before going to Paris with her husband and children for a research sabbatical. Naomi sends us photos of moving day. Ruth, looking grim, leaves the house with a high-school friend, her favorite caregiver, and Michael. The group has tea in New Vista’s courtyard while Michael, on a cell phone, talks to Rachel. Ruth and Naomi, heads joined, smile. Ruth stares at a wall of family photos. Three newly cut paper snowflakes cluster on her window, the red and orange snowflakes perfect, the white snowflake ragged. The spider curls in its invisible web, waiting. Lowest tide exposes a surreal vista of kelp and stones. A guilty privilege, seeing hairy concrete steps that go nowhere and mossy green boulders blinking in the sun. I step gingerly, meditatively, on mounds of squishy black kelp and barnacle-covered clam shells. The bed is a mass of exposed secrets; walking on them, I trespass on a strange planet or the surface of the moon. Michael writes that Ruth is angry. She stays in her room, putting on layers of clothing: three pairs of pants, six shirts. She greets him gladly; they take long walks; she deadheads flowers. When he wants to go, she says, “Don’t leave me here, you may as well throw me out the window.” The nightmare of mental displacement, the world confusing and threatening. A fractured self bewildered by a fractured world. Does Ruth have a core self beyond the reach of neurological devastation? Or is she entirely sculpted by plaque? The incoming tide sweeps over the river bed. Behind me the chipmunk makes a sucking sound. When I turn, it scurries into its oak-roots burrow. Early-morning sun lights half the web. Beyond the cemetery, the solitary loon flies over the river, sounding its ululating tremolo. Every morning it flies upriver, and every evening it flies downriver, regular as a train whistle, bracketing the day. “Ah,” we say, smiling, “there’s the loon.” Herbert and I call Michael for his birthday—Rachel has arrived from Paris. “How are you celebrating?” I ask. “Oh, nothing special,” he says. “We took Ruth to a Turkish restaurant, which she enjoyed, and then we took a walk—her walking has a new deteriorated quality; she starts briskly, then she gets tired, she never used to get tired.” “Something nice did happen,” Rachel prompts him. “Mom took your hand.” “Oh, yes,” Michael says, “we lay down on the grass, we often do that, and she took my hand.” “That’s wonderful,” I say. “Actually it made me sad,” he said. “I get used to receiving nothing and then I’m yanked back.” Rachel says she gave her mother a shower. Ruth didn’t know her name, but knew she was someone dear to her and hugged her. Big rainstorm last night. The spider vanished. Indian summer in Champaign. I organize Ruth’s letters, twenty years’ worth, neatly handwritten, most on 6” x 8” notepaper, some on lined 81/2” x 11”, a few typed on what she called an elderly Mac. From 1987 to 2000, the letters are personal. Family problems, new dance ideas, books, neighbors, yearning for community, struggles to make a life. A wonderful voice, wise and self-deprecating. Around 2000, they become factual, detailing food and trips. The margins are wider. In a long letter on lined paper in 2002, she says she has been letting go of dance, her sense of self since she was ten or eleven. She has sorted and ordered her dance memorabilia and hopes Michael and the girls will look at them with her sometime. “Do they need to?” she asks philosophically. “Certainly not as punishment.” In a scribbled postscript, she says, “And Michael said, at supper, “did you tell her you’re depressed?” and I said “no,” because I think of myself wanting something to do and someone to do it with.” Her letters become increasingly external—itineraries of recent and future trips, news of Canadian dance companies, book lists. She says they consult doctors and neurologists about memory loss; her family doctor does not think she has anything serious, she just forgets things, so she hopes everyone will calm down about it. In 2003, she says, “Yes, I am here. I do forget things with my short-term memory decline but not always or everything.” In 2004, she says, “I feel as though I’m disappearing inch by inch, clinging on by my fingernails.” Her last letter, dated 2007, is about storms, Christmas meals, and making gingerbread cookies. Ultimate displacement waits in the wings. I hold on to my aunt Dinah as a model, ninety-eight and doing okay, hoping I have her genes or her luck—if she is okay, I am okay. I do not mess with fate, do not release the genies of catastrophe; let the inevitable rustle in its dark box. And yet, and yet. One loss substitutes for another, carries its freight—physical displacements, final displacements. They lurk and scratch, but I refuse to confront them, cheerful with my doctor and shunning medicine. So far so good. The autumn foliage is yellow, presumably because September was so wet. I carry yard waste to the curb. At dawn a friend, an installation artist, dumped a zillion bags of ginkgo leaves in an alley in downtown Urbana, creating a golden river. Children joyfully buried each other and tossed armfuls of leaves, which fell in golden showers. Michael says Ruth comes out of her room occasionally and lies on other beds. Her clothes migrate; she joins the sing–along, eats hearty breakfasts. Her mood varies. She says his name. They have been going to Quaker meeting on Sundays. She looks peaceful there, he says, and he takes comfort in the thought of an inner light, of people finding the inner light within themselves and, in silence, trying to find it within others. Norma Marder is the author of a novel, An Eye for Dark Places. Her stories and personal essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, the Georgia Review, and Literal Latté. She lives in Champaign, Illinois, and Newcastle, Maine. “Displaced” appears in our Spring 2011 issue.