i am back and forth
This morning I woke up in a bed and breakfast. I am sitting at a little antique secretary in the corner of a gigantic room overlooking an ordinary tree-lined street in Big Rapids, Michigan, a town I knew nothing about until this morning, when we had a long conversation with Jane, the very friendly woman who owns and runs this bed and breakfast, and made us coffee and stuffed french toast.
Yesterday was our seventh anniversary and, because my mother-in-law was sweet enough to come stay with our girls, we were able to leave them for two nights, something I have not done even once since my oldest was born four years ago.
There is not a lot to see in Big Rapids. Last night we ate at one of the restaurants in walking distance downtown, a bar called Schubert’s. Tonight we will eat at the other, fancier restaurant within walking distance. This morning I went to the single antique store and poked my head into the gift shop, which reminded me, unfortunately, of a hospital gift shop, but sold those plastic shape bracelets that all kids seem to be wearing these days, so I bought Esme a pack. Later, I might go to the women’s boutique a little further down. After that, I’m not sure, but I brought a lot of books, including a new novel that I am now really into. Jeff brought his classical guitar and is now out on the expansive wrap-around porch, practicing sheet music. We brought one movie, which I turned off last night after ten minutes because I thought it was crappy, and preferred to read.
Yesterday we floated down the Muskegan River in inner tubes– the other thing to do here. Despite the town being so named, I saw neither hide nor hair of a big rapid. Rather, there were some brief and almost-swift, yet still-gentle episodes of rocky shoals punctuating the much more prominent serene sections of deeper, smoother water. The river carried us along, for sure, but at what I might call a gerontological pace. It took two hours to complete the tubing experience, at which point it was beginning to be evening. We exited and rolled our inner tubes up a staircase along the embankment. We waited in the warm late-summer air for the tubing company van to pick us up. We sat near a sign which was partly informational, with awful, anatomically incorrect graphics of people in dangerous scenarios connected to the river, and partly a memorial for two local girls who recently drowned there. It said something like: “Enjoy the river. Respect its power.” Somehow this seemed a profound commentary about such a docile-seeming river, and it did cause me to consider the river in a different, more respectful way.
While floating down the river, existential metaphors kept coming to me involuntarily. If you sat in the inner tube and just let the river take you, all kinds of variations happened of their own accord. Sometimes the river would take Jeff ahead of me for no discernible reason; other times I would get way ahead of him for no discernible reason. Sometimes it would push me off to the side no matter how much I tried to paddle myself back to the center. Sometimes it would turn me facing backwards for a long stretch, then turn me forwards again. Sometimes the sun would be glittering and glaring in my eyes, and other times I got a little chilly if the river bent altogether out of the sun into deep green shadows. Then I thought about how these kinds of existential thoughts were precisely what made me feel awkward in public school, and out of place yet again among the kind of college kids who could be found at fraternity and sorority parties at big state schools. There was a cluster of guys and girls ahead of us in the river who were having a great time together. They were loud and had a floating cooler of beer with them. They shouted “hey” at us in a friendly, ostentatious manner when we floated past. After passing them I was amused to see a rogue purple flip flop floating near me. I forgot about it for a long stretch, and then was surprised to see it again not four feet from me much further down. I thought that because I had forgotten it that the river would have forgotten it as well. But it did not cease to exist; the river was bearing it right along with me, at the same pace.
Before having children, I would have been dissatisfied by this vacation and all that it lacks in the way of time fillers. I would have wanted the river to be more rapid, the downtown to have more places and people. I would have preferred to not be the lone couple staying in this cavernous, historical house-turned-bed-and-breakfast. But now, as soon as we left home in a car with no children and had the expanse of time in front of us, I felt a weight lifted off me and was thrilled with the novelty of quiet and no one to take care of but myself. Their car seats had been transferred into Mimi’s car so the back seat was empty. My face muscles, my shoulders, my lungs, all felt more oxygenated; I adjusted the passenger seat of the car into the fully reclined position, knowing that no one’s little knees would be in the way. I stretched my entire body up and back.
Before even leaving South Bend, we stopped at the downtown public library to get books and CDs to take with us. Even this– something I would have not placed much value in before– was surprisingly fun. I love looking and browsing in a lost-in-thought manner, carried along by an unbroken stream of consciousness so that I can hunt down not just the first or second thing that occurs to me, but even the tenth thing that occurs to me, and needs the preceding nine things in order to come into being in my head–a thing I have been meaning to pursue but never sees the light of a to-do list. I gained a little more insight into why my grandparents took so many excursions that seemed so vacuous to me as a child, like driving all the way from Orlando to St. Augustine and back just to eat at Barnicle Bill’s seafood restaurant. After life gets filled up with so much around-the-clock responsibility, a little bit of void feels wonderful. Because really, it is not void at all, but probably only seems that way to the children sitting in the back seat.
This morning, after the stuffed french toast, Jane more or less sat down with us and talked shop about the restoration of this house and her unlikely vocation as a keeper of a bed and breakfast. I got almost palpably tired just listening to her description of stripping and re-staining the elaborate oak fireplace mantles in each and every room. It occurred to me that a person would have to be specifically cut out for such a task in life– the complete restoration of gigantic old house. She grew up just down the street and was once chased off the property by a maid named Harriet, who shook a broom at her. She told us about how this house was owned by an old woman for a while who took in boarders. Then it was sold in the 1960s to a national fraternity. Frat boys of decades past still pop in periodically to see the house in its restored state and share stories of their wild times here, including a slip n’ slide party that took place on the wooden flooring of the downstairs rooms (somehow I got the impression of the slip n’ slide being awash with beer instead of water), which of course could not be salvaged in the restoration. My thoughts drifted back to the burly guy at the tubing company who handed us our inner tubes, and who, upon hearing where we were staying, said, “Yeah, I rushed that fraternity,” with a subdued smile on his face.
She told us about a psychic who visits the bed and breakfast regularly and does readings. She told us that Desmund Tutu’s daughter Naomi came to speak at the local university, and has been her most famous visitor, and was a very kind, down-to-earth woman. She told us that specific ghosts were seen here in the recent past, and there has been a consistent account of a woman with long auburn hair walking around upstairs. And the cries of babies have been heard coming from the attic–because babies surely must have been birthed and died here in the 1800s. She said that three times she walked throughout the entire house speaking to the ghosts, telling them to go over to the other side, and so now the house is clear of ghosts. This has been confirmed by the regularly visiting psychic.
Despite its paranormal subject matter, the conversation felt oddly sane, friendly, and cheerful, and was a pleasant start to what was bound to be a very quiet, lazy day for us here. And the house, even at night, does not feel even slightly haunted to me, and this is coming from someone who is fairly susceptible to sensing strange vibes in connection to strange places. No, I have a good feeling about this house. And anyway, I am much more spooked by the thought of the three decades of fraternity boys, who are, to my mind, far scarier than 19th century ghosts.
* * *
The Inside of Things
by Linda Hogan
Such lovely voices, the angels
singing at night in the showers,
sitting among the plants
talking about their pasts on earth.
They don’t care
about the inside of daily things
the bones in an open palm
or feet that start tapping
to inner songs.
Angels have better things to think about
than houses sitting on the shabby planet
with night lights in dark halls,
or attics, filled
with records of war and birth.
Angels have no time
for horses in the barn
or the three white geese.
They are busy preening their own wings
or pecking at one another.
But the demons
come knocking right on the door
telling how angels have failed
to look at the inside of lies and history,
at ticks on horses in the barn,
at broken beams of houses.
They point out the cat’s thin ribs
and sore teeth.
I am back and forth,
held in soft wings
then falling, then saved,
dancing through air
to earth made of bones,
to new green rising up,
like the bountiful rain
taken in by earth,
taken in by sky.