Monday, November 26, 2012

Piecing Together a 21st Century Prairie Memoir

Finally a week to my own, my own thoughts, no papers to grade, no classes to plan. Only at the end of my week off is there a glimmer of the book, a moment to try and focus on the thesis that I've struggled with for a good seven months. I've written 40,000 words based on research, and before I start the other 40,000 based on personal stories, I need to find the pulse. Here I am, tossing up darts at a board in front of you with no context, just trying to find the path. So tell me--does any of this hook you?


I want to write about my family, I want to give my grandma back what she tried to give to me. I want to come to terms with Oklahoma. I want to learn the lessons of the vanished prairie and Territory filled with dozens of Native American tribes. I want to know why it's so important to rush forward beyond the moment. I want to sit in the leftover dining room chair on the homestead, in the grasslands, by the oil derricks, and in my grandma’s house. I want to look through time with a sharp eye and open heart and risk the world I know for the one I should know more. This is a microcosm, Oklahoma, of everything we understand in America and who we’ve become. I want to run my fingers over this state’s rough edges and trip on what I find in the afterimage.

Next my grandma and I would hit Brahm’s for a hot fudge sundae, then I’d get dragged to Great Grandma Vogt’s, or driven by some field twenty minutes south whose name I can’t recall—the Harms’ 80, the Vogt 40, the Martin 80. All the time I’d be in the backseat, sitting in the sun, barely able to see out the window, the dirt roads tossing me into the air, my grandma gazing out the window from the cool interior, wistfully remembering something she wanted to share, felt she must share, but knew was impossible to bring me into. I was too young. When I visit those same fields today, sometimes with my dad or uncle—both who insist on a similar tour of wheat stubble and natural gas wells to show me what’s ours—I get the same ache in my legs and dryness in my mouth. There is nothing out here but a moment lodged into someone else’s brain, something I can’t recognize as a seven year old or as a thirty year old. I never lived here in the way they did and I feel made to repent my distant life. The dust trailing behind our cars are ghosts that can’t keep up, that either settle back down until the next car passes, or lift up into the air falling miles away, perhaps permanently suspended in the atmosphere.

I feel guilty about two things—never listening to / appreciating my grandmother and her stories, and never loving Oklahoma like she did. I found her the boring Grandma, and found the state hot, dry, and oppressive. Backwater even. I felt it in my thick accent the moment I stepped into a Minnesota grade school classroom. Maybe MN made me hate OK more, maybe I always hated it, I don’t know. I do know that upon living half my childhood in each place, and now living twelve years geographically between the two in Nebraska, I must bring them together in order to move forward, to find my place in a new place wherever it may be. Until I do that, I can’t live fully and I can’t honor myself, my family, or the landscapes I hope to heal. The irony is that in confronting my loathing of OK, I’m growing to appreciate and even revere aspects of it.

Words are the bridge between the unconscious and conscious, between emotion and action—without them I am adrift and useless. But facing myself and my family I must also face the prairie, the Native Americans, and manifest destiny. The loss of the world is the loss of the people, not the other way around—confronting that lineage of pain is to not repeat those mistakes (if I honor the people and the place now, maybe I can be honorable in any place in the future). So if I can find the place of Oklahoma I may find some glimmer of my grandmother in me or I in her, and in turn, some glimmer of the future.

8 comments:

Diana of Elephants Eye said...

The dust trailing behind our cars are ghosts that can’t keep up

that hooked me. I envy the next 3 generations, my nieces and their children and grandchildren. Because my parents came to South Africa and the way life happens, I never met a grandparent.

sharon said...

loved the last paragraph...my grandmother taught school in one room in Lincoln Nebraska....yes i wish I had spent more than on week a year with us and wish I could have visited there....too before she went senile..now my mother is getting toward the end and she doesnt want to talk about it much anymore....

julianhoffman said...

"to find my place in a new place wherever it may be." Beautiful and moving pulse throughout this. To me it sounds as if you're on your path already, marking a way with words through the past and future, honouring people and place in the present. Onwards!

Benjamin Vogt said...

D--Thanks. Is it ok if I say that I really like that image, too? :)
S--Oh that's so sad. It is just mind boggling how much vanished from this earth when a person leaves it, and yet, somehow, every part of them is still here--just all jumbled up again in a way no one else will see.
J--Maybe you're right.... Book projects are just so darn complex, and as essays and chapter build the who thing morphs and shifts, and a writer has to keep realigning it.

gardenwalkgardentalk.com said...

I do believe I would like your book. It has such a homespun family appeal which never was found in my own life. I never new either grandmother, even though both lived to ripe old age. I very much believe this phrase, "to find my place in a new place wherever it may be."

Donna@Gardens Eye View said...

I am so looking forward to your book...the idea of reconnecting with our family, the stories is so appealing...I know I never listened enough to ever write any of my family stories down and now they are gone..I really like , "The loss of the world is the loss of the people, not the other way around."

Gaia Gardener: said...

You hooked me with, "...to sit in the leftover dining room chair on the homestead, in the grasslands, by the oil derricks, and in my grandma’s house. I want to look through time with a sharp eye and open heart and risk the world I know for the one I should know more." That is such a poignant, vivid image for me.

"The dust trailing behind our cars are ghosts that can’t keep up...."

Is your loathing of Oklahoma completely due to the state itself (and/or the landscape), or did something happen to you here that you've displaced onto the land?

Did you happen to catch Ken Burn's latest, "The Dust Bowl"? Talking about western Oklahoma during the 30's, but fascinating nonetheless.

Your writing in incredibly evocative. Keep up the good work!

Benjamin Vogt said...

GWGT--Homespun to a degree, I think. I'll talk a lot about how farmers and Americans are complicit in destroying the Plains and thousands of species, and discuss treatment of Native Americans. Even today people look at an indigenous person with suspicion, loathing, fear, disgust--as much as if it were still 1870. I know this will ruffle many feathers and won't win me readership in my home state.
D--You know, I just barely was able to get some stories. Almost missed the cutoff. Still, not having my grandma to talk to is just killer.
G--Thank you! I think you are right on both accounts--it's the landscape and something projected on to it. And yet, landscape projects on us, too. Your comment was helpful to me as I try to figure out what it is I'm REALLY getting at. (I recorded the dust bowl show...)