May 15, 2015

Lilacs, Homesickness, and Amy Lowell

When I was a kid, I planned on living in Montana. Or Colorado. Or Alaska. Somewhere far away from Moira, NY. A place where there was adventure, freedom. I was pretty sure the last time Moira saw adventure was when a horse stubbed its toe and bolted while the settlers moved in in 1803. One night, after babysitting for the local seed salesman, he asked me my plans for after high school. I told him of my terribly adventurous plans and he smiled knowingly. "There is something about this place, strings that pull you back no matter how far you go." I wanted to tell him those strings had been cut when I read my first Zane Grey, but out of politeness, I just smiled knowingly right back at him.

My semester of college in Chico, California was a whirl of friends, laughter, and interest in a beautiful place. I remember being glad to be home, but I never pined for New York. However, I was glad enough to be home that I put off my semester in Alaska for another year. But I still yearned for wide open spaces. In December 2002, I moved up to Alaska for the spring semester. I had a brother, sister, and brother-in-law living there, and another sister moved up with me. That made the transition easy and the dark days of January in Alaska were full of friends and happiness. Five months later, that happiness made me marry one of those friends that I had fallen in love with. My memories of those days are full of that happiness and love. And the almost constant summer sunshine. Going up to Alaska last spring, as we drove out of Anchorage, rounded a curve and headed out to Eagle River and the valley on the Glenn, I suddenly remembered the homesickness. Remembered the homesickness that sometimes felt like a physical ailment. Like something that could reach inside me and twist my stomach with yearning.

I didn't return to New York for a year and a half, due mostly to getting married with very little money. And even then, I didn't think my Colorado husband would ever consent to us living in New York. I loved the place, but I would have been the first to acknowledge it's weaknesses. So my homesickness was in part an acknowledgement of goodbye forever. A goodbye I didn't feel ready to make.

During the year and a half exile from "my home, my native land." I finished up my college degree. Since we lived in Wasilla and I went to college in Anchorage, a forty five minute drive if there was no snow or traffic, I didn't go home in between classes. I went to the library. I would wander around, looking through the stacks, stumbling on books that looked interesting and immersing myself until my next class. One day I picked up The Oxford Book of American Verse. And in turning, I came across Amy Lowell's Lilacs. There are lilacs in Alaska--we picked some off a bush next to our friend's door for our wedding, but in this poem, lilacs were emblematic of all I missed from home. Lilacs were one of my favorite flowers, the only one I carried down the aisle, the ones I walked across spring fields on the farm for, collecting armfuls. I read the poem and I sat there, looking out the window at the falling Alaska snow and I gave in totally to homesickness. Let it wash over me like a sickening wave of longing. Then, half an hour later, I put the book away and went to my next class. Because that is life. But that poem has meant a lot to me ever since. Even after my kind and understanding husband moved us all back to this place I love, four years later. It reminds me of that homesick girl, sitting in a library in Alaska, dreaming of northern New York, and lilacs.

(This is a long poem, so I have omitted some parts, indicated by ... And it is still too long. At least read the last stanza, which is a favorite of the favorite bits. This is the full poem, here.)

Amy Lowell

False blue, 
Colour of lilac, 
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this, my New England.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon

You are everywhere. 
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon, 
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking, 
You persuaded the housewife that her dish pan was of silver
And her husband an image of pure gold. 
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses--
You, and sandal-wood and tea, 
Charging the noses of quill driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: 'Goose quill men, goose quill men,
May is a month for flitting,'
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter sheets behind the propped up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks

May is lilac here in New England, 
May is a thrush singing 'Sun up!' on a tip-top ash-tree, 
May is white clouds behind pine trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other, 
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth, 
And apple blossoms, 
And windows open to a South wind. 
May is a full light wind of lilac 
From Canada to Narragansett Bay. 

False blue, 
Colour of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England, 
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it, 
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it, 
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine. 

1 comment:

Evan and Clover and Co. said...

So I text you that I'm missing Alaska, and then I read your blog and it makes me remember how much I missed New York when I was in Alaska. My literary moment of that homesickness was reading "Grandfathers's Journey" by Allan Say and realizing that other people knew of the desperate longing for two places at once.