Each fall, at the start of a new semester, the bright vibration of muscle memory has me reaching for leather work gloves and muck boots instead of syllabi. In the morning dark, I smell the sharp cold dirt of wresting tubers from the furrow behind the plow—until the coffee percolates and I throw on a dress and respectable heels, pack my lunch and laptop and texts. On campus, I sit in a circle of small tables in the poorly regulated heat of old buildings that have yet to catch up to the change in season. I write semi-legibly on the whiteboard and get reacquainted with my office where sunlight illumines a still life of summer’s dead stink bugs strewn over the wood floor.
There are emails, and a novella underway. I rework a scene of salamanders, the salamander tail slips out of my character’s grasp, though there remains a feltness. The spigot of student manuscripts starts as a dribble and will soon become a steady flow of seventy-five to ninety pages a week, and I will grow doggedly devoted to sussing out their abiding images and pointing the students toward stories that might stun them with possibility.
But in my body stir the ghostly tasks of preparing for winter, chores from the subsistence farm of my 1980s childhood in West Virginia. I have been teaching English for twenty years, writing for far longer. My labor, now, is language. But I still get the itch to work with my hands. The thick scrim of linguistic pursuits is lit from behind by a few acres fenced by barbed wire and multiflora rose, four gardens for cellar and truck, the milking shed for the Guernsey, the chicken coop, the pack of dogs and barn cats. My family of six stoked a coal-and-wood boiler, stacked cordwood in an assembly line from the wooden bed of the pickup to the shed—the beautiful plangent tones of locust hitting locust and good fire in our muscles. We skimmed cream from the top of the milk pail for the butter churn and wrapped bloody venison in freezer paper, caught wet towels from the lip of a wringer washer and hung them on the line in the last of the season’s warm days.
All the quart jars of peaches, tomatoes, half-runner beans lined the cellar shelves like live things clinging to vine or branch. The potatoes mounded dusky in the cellar bin. We stomped salted cabbage into kraut to sour during the winter months. And the sewing: not my hands but my mother’s when she ran the Singer machine at the kitchen table, which, by some magic of circuitry, turned the TV to fuzzy snow, so we begged her to restrict her mending of our clothes to commercials only. I see her with her back to the screen door open to the brisk fall air; nearsighted, my mother lifts her glasses to look at a fussy bobbin.
I burned trash out back with my brothers, our father’s hollow discs of snuff going black, his Levi Garrett tobacco box a small room of fire collapsing, with the rest, to ash. Many mornings, long after first frost, we had to break the ice that had formed in the Cool Whip tubs of water for the dogs.
The intensity with which we prepared for a rural winter agitates my city-dwelling memory at the start of fall, so fall is when I seek a reconciliation—the kind sought perhaps by all who write and teach—between the other life and the life lived in words. Within the surge of my residual agrarian energy a fear pulses, of slipping into abstraction, into estrangement from the real world. I fear slipping out of touch with my origins. In my labors of language, my body preserves the absence of its earlier labors in the way that the denim of my dad’s jeans refused to reshape after he pulled the disc of Copenhagen from his back pocket for a dip.
Now in my forties, I’m thinking there will never be a return to my original life, though I know of conscientious professors who do move to hardscrabble farms as earnest back-to-landers, and design courses around this move and write books about it. I am not making that move, yet I refuse to believe that the only alternative is to live in exile from the life that shaped my early years, that there is no middle ground between this exile and return.
If I am honest in my appraisal of my manual chores now: I safety pin the gaps in my blouses and keep the button in a bowl somewhere; I have a gas fireplace that operates by remote; I leave pants unhemmed, though I have a Dressmaker machine I could use if I asked my mother or YouTube for help. On breaks from teaching, I forego washing my hair for days and let the dog fur amass into something resembling rats’ nests, with their cobwebs and blown-in leaves—all for the sake of a paragraph. I rise at dawn to scribble my thoughts on the readings I have assigned, then craft a prompt that aims to urge forth spiritual and emotional currents in stories, theirs and mine.
I live far from any working farm. Although there is no city ordinance against it, I don’t keep chickens. And I have gone only so far as to price raised garden beds on craigslist; I frequent Kroger and do not fill a cellar; I keep a basil plant alive and love to break off leaves for cooking, enjoying the smell of basil on my skin the rest of the evening as I read. I haven’t dug potatoes behind a plow for years, but I give the feel of the cold mud-caked Kennebecs to a character in a story, even the feel of dead mice babies, casualties to the plow and held. I reach for that image to harness and make whole a series of otherwise aimless phrases.
Maybe my reach for this image is what convinces me that, although there is no impending return to the furrows for me, there is also no exile from that tillage. For even when my subject wildly departs from my origins, I am inevitably keeping in touch with them. And keeping in touch with origins—whether origins of childhood or of the natural world or of an object in three dimensions or of sound itself—is the only way to keep language original, to give it good fire.
The progression over time has gone like this: in the beginning I found writing and teaching to be the more beautiful work, a chance to engage in something more than the menial labor that sustains life; I wanted to render experience fully, bestow on it an eloquence. But then the act of writing only revealed to me the eloquence inherent in those sustaining tasks, the creation of life at the center of sound and rhythm: the way the work shapes the day from milkshed—teats pulled to a criss-cross spurt and stream rhythm into the pail—to spectral laundry gathered at dusk—things beseeching. I mean that those early labors gave form to formlessness—or that those labors discerned forms immanent in the formlessness of time and matter and need that lay before us.
The current move in my progression is ongoing: I reach for language to keep up a correspondence, to continue the work given to me from the start. “There’s a thread you follow,” wrote William Stafford. “It goes among / things that change. But it doesn’t change.” It is a trembled live wire of connection, kept alive as I go about my chores, though the chores are different from before, as I try to keep vigilant that language does not abstract but brings things nearer.
I relish, then, the haunting of the ghostly tasks as fall opens before me. I forget to brush my hair; I safety-pin the gap of my blouse, spared its quarter-shank button, and take my seat in the circle of small tables. I tie up a fascicle of novella notes with kitchen twine meant for the legs of a chicken set to roast. I relish the correspondences always blinking, inherent, like the boustrophedon, those ancient manuscripts written with one line left to right and the next right to left, plowing with the dragged blade the field of the page, the Greek boustrophēdón meaning “to turn like oxen.”
There is a hard frost. My zinnias are finally done, and how bright is their finish. I can see the porch of my childhood, a washtub spilling nasturtium, half in wilt, half in jubilance, through early fall. I still thrum with the work of my hands and the work at hand. Break the surface of the ice in the dog’s Cool Whip water bowl; break the surface of images that might abide and outlive us, even if they too will fade to forgetfulness, like all gestures or tasks done wholly and with keen attention. My desire is not to make the work permanent but that it be full and fulfilled, a message both offered and received as part of a lush correspondence in the evening fall light.
Jessie van Eerden is the author of the portrait-essay collection The Long Weeping (Orison Books, 2017) and three novels: Call It Horses, winner of the 2021 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, My Radio Radio (Vandalia Press, 2016), and Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Best American Spiritual Writing, Gulf Coast, AGNI, New England Review,and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Hollins University and is nonfiction editor of Orison Books. (updated 2022)
Read George Estreich’s review of van Eerden’s “Answer When You’re Called” in the folio “AGNI 96 Reviews AGNI 96”