On vacation…

for the next week and a half – the first 5 days will be spent at our cabin in northern (lower) Michigan. Yesterday my dad and my uncle flushed 147 bats out of the cabin roof and sealed a hole in the roof through which the bats entered shut. Apparently a few of these bats are still hanging around and you chase them off with a broom. If you don’t hear from me again, it’s because I was an unfortunate victim of a bat attack. I blogged extensively (okay, three times) last summer about how tenuous my relationship with the outdoors is – nothing more soothing than the feel of cement beneath high heels. But I keep trying, and I do grow more comfortable each visit.

Upon our return we will have a house guest (the very best house guest, M. – my long-time-since-fifth-grade-best-friend-forever-and-yes-we-still-call-each-other-best-friends-and-

we-are-almost-thirty-!) so I’ll probably won’t post until a week from Sunday. I hope you all enjoy the beginning of the month, and for those of you not familiar with the geography I’m talking about, here is an excerpt from the first chapter of my manuscript that explains it. And yes, this is shameless self-promotion, but the life of a writer is endless rejection and this is my blog so it’s okay if I have no shame, because you can now stop reading. Really, it’s a win-win situation. If you decide to read on, the name of my manuscript is Haunted by Hemingway, and it’s a collection of essays exploring the themes set forth in Hemingway’s Nick Adam’s short stories. As my dad is a Hemingway scholar, you can imagine a lot of daddy issues arise, and they do. Also, my great-grandfather was Hemingway’s surgeon after WWI, so there’s that history. And Hemingway and I share landscape, so themes of place are supposed to be there – I don’t know if it worked or not. And finally, issues of ownership, both ethereal and concrete – I mean, the land upon which this cabin is built used to be Native American territory. My great-great grandfather’s purchase was probably not…entirely ethical, to say the least. And finally finally, each chapter has allusions to Eliot and Yeats, which none of my committee members ever mentioned, so either these allusions were to overt and unsuccessful but my committee gave me props for trying, or they read the book so quickly they didn’t notice. Happy early July – regularly scheduled programming will resume in ten days.

In “The Last Good Country,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway, the lead character, Nick Adams, runs away with his younger sister, Littless, and they seek refuge in the same pine flats and swampy bogs the men in my life know so well. At one point, Littless asks Nick why he chose the land between Walloon Lake and Boyne City as sanctuary. Nick scans the landscape and answers “Because this is the last good country.” Nick knows the land the way my brother and father and uncles do, and Hemingway penned those words long before tourism became a viable trade in Northern Michigan. Now, when I visit and attempt to regain the ground I lost those many years ago, I survey the luxury homes and golf courses and the plethora of restaurants and strip malls that decorate once lonely roads, new real estate that didn’t exist even the last time I visited, and I think, oh, oh how Hemingway would hate it here now.

Michigan is shaped like a mitten, and when Michiganders ask one another what part of the state they hail from, the person responding inevitably holds up her hand, thumb pointing east, and points to her lifeline or a freckle near the middle finger in response. I remember, throughout college, attending various parties and watching as drunken students laboriously tried to balance their plastic cups of Bud Light while holding up a hand and pointing out their hometown. It is convenient to have an appendage that serves as a map, and it allows for an immediate sense of recognition. I may not know where Clare or Hillman are located, but I certainly identify the crook of my thumb or the edge of my index finger.

If you hold your hand in this manner, first imagine all around its border, water. The geography of my youth, then, can be located in this way: at the very tip and edge of your pointer finger is Alpena, the small industrial town I grew up in. Travel west to the very middle of your middle finger, and that is where the cabin is. Follow the same western route until you land at the middle pad of your ring finger, and that is Boyne City. Only two hundred miles separate Alpena from Boyne, and I traveled this route endlessly as a child. Between these cities are small rivers and lakes and miles of undeveloped forest. We lived, my entire extended family, “Up North,” a term that native residents understand to describe northern-lower Michigan and not the Upper Peninsula. For those familiar with Michigan’s landscape, “Up North” generally conjures images of skiing, swimming, boating and camping, and it is a term many southern residents use when describing where they vacation. “Oh, we just went up north, you know, my husband’s family owns a beach house there.” Another item to keep in mind: everybody either owns something up north, or is related to someone who does. For people living in Detroit, Saginaw or flint, going up north is a respite from the traffic, smog and factories that populate their everyday lives. With them, they bring their recreation vehicles and campers and boats. With them, they bring their money, and with their money they bring a tension as old as vacations and summer colonies themselves; the tension between those who live there year round and those who spend a fleeting amount of time, leaving behind crushed beer cans, forest floors trampled by all-terrain vehicles, lake waters churning from reckless jet skis, and just enough money to make it until ski season begins.

When I left for college and began making friends with the girls from southern Michigan, it was generally understood by all of us that some serious hick habits infected me, and I gave myself over happily to their pliant hands, allowing them to straighten my blonde curls, redo my makeup and rearrange my c.d. collection, hiding the country and Credence Clearwater Revival in the back and positioning Snoop Dog and the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack near the front. Without any old friends around me, I allowed, and even encouraged, a complete makeover. In the capable hands of girls who grew up around malls, hair salons and concert venues, I began the slow process of ringing the north out of me.

I thought it would be easy, at the time. I assumed a person could simply choose the landscape and lifestyle she identified with. I didn’t know the home I claimed to hate, the home I considered provincial and unsophisticated and probably bourgeois, simply because I didn’t know what bourgeois meant although I assumed it to be the worst insult, if my new English professors could be trusted, would try to lure me back.

The cabin marks the halfway point between my home town and Boyne City, and it has served in so many capacities for me: it has provided solace during times of sadness, refuge when the world felt too much with me, sanctuary when I only desired quiet. And now, in my twenty-eighth year, with both grandmothers gone and parents who say loudly, whenever possible, that they are aging, with a husband who actually wants to make all of our Michigan talk come true, I think of how my family once filled that place up until we spilled out onto the land itself, and it’s enough to break my heart.

This entry was posted in Michigan Meditations, The Northern Woods. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On vacation…

  1. Katie says:

    I’m able to read these entries hot off the presses thanks to Bloglines. It makes life so much easier…

    Anyway, great first chapter. I knew I didn’t understand what your book was about… and was so pleasantly surprised. I love the narrative! I endure teasing to this day from my PA roommate about pulling out my palm to point to my hometown. And this is one of the only 4th of July weekends I can remember where I won’t be going “up north.” Enjoy your vacation!

  2. kj says:

    This is so f-ing, good Courtney. Wow. Very nice. Smooth. Nice language. The words all FIT together so nicely. You have a great start here. I want to read the rest. Send it to me when you can.

    Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Hem’s suicide. Though I don’t know all of the circumstances that surrounded his decision, and I am not encouraging suicide, I believe that he had reasons for what he did. He knew his whole life that he would end it with his own hand. I think he treated it like a man would treat the business of putting down his favorite hunting dog if it could no longer run and enjoy life. Anyway, it saddens me a little.

    Hope you enjoy your vacation “Up North” – we are truly blessed here in Mitten Land.

    – k.j.

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