Two weeks ago at this time I was taking in my first experience of the annual Willa Cather Spring Conference. For months my excitement grew for the event, which included a 700-mile solo road trip.
Things are now moving along quickly with my forthcoming book, Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life. Two weeks ago I received the “typeset proof.” It was simultaneously exciting and bizarre to see my name on the title page, on the copyright page. I shared those pages with some of classes, and as I told my Creative Writing students, “this could be you some day.” They brightened at the possibility.
The book is a time capsule, a record of my years spent working on the poems. All of my pieces of writing (published or unpublished) are time capsules. When I reread those capsules, I see myself at a different point in time, even if the work is fiction. The oldest poem in the book, “Calcutta to Canon Beach,” is an artifact from my first PhD workshop in October 2007.
These forty poems are a record of my attempts to bring together the spiritual with the pastoral, place-based elements typical of my poetry. I strove to mesh my two poetic impulses. These forty poems are also a record of my spiritual discipline from Lent 2014 when I drafted a poem a day. In fact, over half of the poems in the book were drafted in that time.
This week I’ll be reviewing the proof–checking for formatting, rereading the poems for pleasure’s sake. I’ll send back my finalized version well before the deadline of December 19, excited to see the next stages of the book development (especially the cover). And in the coming weeks and months leading up to the release, I’ll be sharing more about the book.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the childhood hometown of Willa Cather. As I wrote about in an earlier post, she is one of my favorite writers. I had been dreaming about this day ever since we made plans to travel through Red Cloud, Nebraska, on our vacation to visit family in Minnesota.
The afternoon was full of the blue sky and puffy clouds that I associate with her novels O Pioneers! and My Antonia. While my wife and kids played at a nearby park, I toured the inside of her childhood home and visited the newly opened Willa Cather center. This was my first literary pilgrimage, and it was everything I hoped it would be.
Exterior of house
Official dedicatory plaque
Dining room and Willa Cather’s highchair
Her bedroom (with original wallpaper)
One of Willa Cather’s writing desks
Willa Cather and Plainswriter
At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.
Over the last weekend in April, I was presenting at a conference in New York, a place I had never visited. Because I flew into JFK and my hotel was located on West 71st, I rode over an hour in a taxi. The afternoon was overcast, with the temperature in the low 60s. I sat in the backseat, a small sliding window open to the spring air.
I stared out the window, gaping, taking in the details of the city: the branches beginning to bud, the beautiful lavender of a tree that looked familiar but I couldn’t name (Eastern Rosebud), the proximity of the houses to one another.
It struck me that I, for many years, did the same thing growing up whenever my parents were driving, whether it was around town, to a nearby town, or to the Minneapolis suburbs.
I love to drive (and that love manifests itself in much of what I write), but I was always happy to ride anywhere, and when I’m the passenger, I don’t have to consider traffic around me. I can let me mind wander, take in the sights.
In school, I occasionally was corrected by the teacher for staring out the window. I can still hear my junior-high English teacher telling me, “Nate, stop staring out the window.” To be clear, I liked English, a lot. But there were trees outside, birds flying by. Maybe a passing car. All of those things interested me, too.
Even my friends would make fun of me as I stared, open mouthed at somebody, at something—studying, wondering, questioning. “Catchin’ flies?” they would ask, and then laugh. It didn’t bother me that much—I’m sure I looked foolish.
Staring—the ability to actively take in my surroundings, to be curious about them, to study them—has been fundamental training for me as a writer. It is a disposition that is probably partly innate and a habit of mind that I have developed. I am often content to watch and ponder my surroundings, whatever is taking place.
Perhaps there’s a building I’ve seen a hundred times before, but this time I notice the way some of the letters in the sign are more faded than others. Perhaps it’s a road I’ve driven many times before, but this time I’m struck by a stand of pines, and notice how they extend further back from the road than what I recall. And when I visit someplace new, as I did NYC last month, my senses are overloaded with details, and I am reminded of how I have never struggled with boredom.
Growing up in Minnesota, I lived less than 15 miles from two state parks. As a child I visited those places to hike, to picnic, to camp, to swim, to take a school field trip. There was something special about those places. To be clear, I wasn’t much of a science kid (with the exception of astronomy and meteorology–those two branches of science that most excite me), but certain elements of the natural world drew me in: trees, lakes, birds. And I loved hiking on the trails in the enclosed spaces of the woods.
One of the marks of the shift from the Spring to Summer–besides the changing weather–was the ritual of purchasing the new annual park pass. My family would pull up to the ranger’s station, the bell would ding from the pneumatic hose, and out would step a ranger. He or she would reach inside the passenger side window, pull out a razor blade and begin scraping off the previous year’s pass. Once that old pass was removed, and we paid our $20, there was the mystery over the new year’s featured park and image.
When I eventually began using a family car later in college, I too then participated in the ritual on my own, and by this time, the stickers had been redesigned so they were not as difficult to remove. It was in this period that I began visiting more state parks, starting to mark them off on my Minnesota map. Into my dating and married life, I continued the process of checking off more state parks.
Each year, for instance, Amy and I would camp at a state park at least once, the outing an inexpensive way to spend together away from home, complete with campfire, hot dogs, and marshmallows. When we helped friends move to Oregon, we camped at a state park in Montana on the return trip. When we later lived in Oregon for three years, we camped at various state parks, with one summer trip finding us making our way down the Oregon coast and then working our way toward Crater Lake. When we lived in South Dakota during my doctoral studies, we visited various state parks, taking advantage of the newly installed camping cabins.
Here in Texas now, we have visited a handful of state parks, and I’ve taken my son on a few overnight outings. But here, instead of that decal in the corner of the windshield, I have a plastic card in my wallet. Not quite as interesting, to be sure. I haven’t yet initiated the “formal” process of checking off the parks we’ve visited, but it is nearly April, and soon enough, my schedule will be more open, and I anticipate the fullness of that big gap between spring and fall semesters, with ample time to venture out, family in tow.