(the misadventures of an expatriate corporate dropout)

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Summer at Blue Creek, North Carolina

There was no water at my grandfather's
when I was a kid and would go for it
with two zinc buckets. Down the path,
past the cow by the foundation where
the fine people's house was before
they arranged to have it burned down.
To the neighbor's cool well. Would
come back with pails too heavy,
so my mouth pulled out of shape.
I see myself, but from the outside.
I keep trying to feel who I was,
and cannot. Hear clearly the sound
the bucket made hitting the sides
of the stone well going down,
but never the sound of me.

~Jack Gilbert

I read this poem in the November 10, 2008 issue of The New Yorker (an indulgence I've yet to set aside in my new life abroad). It touched me in ways that surprised me. At first this segment resonated ...

"I see myself, but from the outside.
I keep trying to feel who I was,
and cannot. Hear clearly the sound
the bucket made hitting the sides
of the stone well going down,
but never the sound of me."

As I reread the poem, I was transported back to a summer at my great-grandparents' house in Roseburg, Oregon. I was 12 or so and had a first glimpse of, heretofore unexperienced, freedom.

I was free to stay at a new girlfriend's house. Boys loitered on the curb like vultures who had somehow spotted a fresh kill, circling..circling. We first swam in her pool ... a luxury to me compounded by the fact that there was no fundamentalist cult member judging my swimsuit, my swimstroke or the decibels of my laughter. After we finished our swim and donned cut-off jeans we made our way out to the curb and conspired to take a walk to the river.

The poet Gilbert's words urged me on to attempt to 'see myself. keep trying to feel who I was.' Perhaps I had a little more success or perhaps those were just his words, not his feelings attempted.

As I think about that day walking down to the river, a hot stifling August summer day, I can almost resurrect certain moments. The dust we kicked up as we walked the path, and how it settled down as we got deeper into the woods bordering the river. The smell of the greenery that began to emerge from the trees and fern nearer the water. The sweat trickling down my already dry back. The excitement I felt walking alongside that 13 year old boy, John Alsen was his name.

I thought I understood this boy, whose father was a preacher, a hard mean man who liked to humiliate his kids into submission. John's father had caught him in some harmless yet forbidden act and had shaved his head ... all save a Hare Krishna like pony-tail sprout at the top that he bound in a band. John was as hard headed as he could be, in return. He joked about his ponytail and embraced it, ruining the satisfaction for his father who eventually chopped it off ... irritated.

John and I walked companionably down the path and it wasn't long before I felt his hand take mine. I was speechless and excited and about as near to being in love as a 12 year old can be. The group of us spent the afternoon swinging high over the river, revelling in those moments of being airborne just before we hit water in a shock of cool relief and swam lazily back to shore.

At dusk, we'd had enough and stood on the banks jostling a bit and passing a few stolen cigarettes. The red ember glowed and we all felt that sense of being there ... right there on the edge of everything that adult possibilities present in the mind of a teen. John's arm slipped round my waist and we stole a quick kiss. We made our way back to the neighborhood, up the path, mosquitos buzzing, crickets in the distance. Arms around each other's waists.

For several days, this afternoon beamed bright in my mind, a young girl's flight of fancy. Back at my grandparent's house ... I enjoyed the dull routine of cooking, sewing, walking in to town ... and dreaming about young John Alsen.

Home with them one afternoon, the phone rang. It was another of the boys from the group that night.

"Hey Kim ... whatcha doin'? I heard you had fun the other night. John says he got a piece of tit ..." I slammed the phone down. Shaking. Red. Understanding I wasn't going to ever hear from John or speak to him again ...

Carefully made my way to my room. Closed the door to contemplate the ways of love. The ways of love in the real world versus a young girl's reverie.

And yes, Jack Gilbert, I hear the sounds of me.


Randal Graves said...

I read this, reread it, and again, each time wanting to comment and not sure what exactly to say. In one way, it resonates, strongly; in others, it doesn't for reasons both obvious and not. That was a grammatically horrid sentence, no?

La Framéricaine said...


Non, Je ne regrette rien said...

RG-yeah, well...shit happens! and a lot of it to me. there, another grammatically horrid phrasing... ;-)

LaF-merci bien, Madame...

Michelle said...

Ah, so beautiful.

It resonated so strongly.

I can't even remember the name of the one responsible for the first little heart break. But I remember everything else about him.

Our Juicy Life said...

That was probably the most beautiful post you have ever written and possibly that I have read. I like RG read it once and then re-read it not because I didn't know how to comment but because it was so touching to read. More of these please! Or perhaps a book of short stories!!!!!

amy said...

I love how the reverie ended with a sad crash back into reality.

Did you ever read Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been"? - your story really captured the same feeling of that in-between time beautifully.

Non, Je ne regrette rien said...

michelle~ funny what stays with us, eh?

ojl~ you are too kind, but thank you! I do have it in me, but it is difficult to keep it up (the writing)...your words inspire me...

amy~long ago, long ago. I envy Oates 'stick-to-itivity', her ability to be disciplined with her writing and her output. You have made me want to go back and revisit her earlier works...including the one you mention....thanks for your feedback. it seems nearly all good and ethereal reveries end with a sad crash back into reality.

La Belette Rouge said...

Really beautiful, sad and poignantly reflective. I adore how the poem was an instructive for you,"I see myself, but from the outside.I keep trying to feel who I was..." Only you seem to accomplish it---you do hear the sounds of you. Lovely.

Non, Je ne regrette rien said...

merci, LbR ... it is true Gilber tapped something in me ... a flash of something there that got me going. for a moment. smile~

sue said...
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