Elizabeth Dodd (left) and Janie Elizabeth Miller pose on the porch of the Shotpouch Cabin during a collaborative residency in Oregon State’s Spring Creek Project.
By Elizabeth Dodd
After I swept the tiny seed-shapes of mouse turds from corners of the good wood floor, from the surface of the desk, and into the dustpan I emptied outside in the grass, I wondered how often I’ve lived in the company of mice. Long ago, in the summer my mother scalded her leg pouring the creek water she’d boiled for drinking into a glass pitcher and it scalded her leg, the memory-peg of damage-to-a-parent that a child won’t ever forget, there were mice in the cabin. One night when my father lit a fire in the stone fireplace—river stones they were, probably hauled from the creek that was our water source, and the reason my mother boiled our drinking water in the first place—blind and nearly-hairless babies tumbled from the chimney, squeaking like the sap in a just-lit log we thought it was until suddenly we realized, and he scooped them out, quick, from the hot flames. For a day or two we tried to nurse them back to health, offering warm milk in an eye-dropper, tiny things who never opened their own eyes and were buried outside in the granite-flecked Colorado earth. A tiny one-room cabin in Montana where the man I loved then went up into the attic and came down looking sick, there were so many mice he could see dead from the poison someone had already set out and a few others looking back at him, over the torn insulation, the 12 X 10 foot space above our heads a nest of death and he couldn’t stop thinking of plague, or hanta virus, and the thoughts stayed with him till he had me drive an hour through winding high-mountain roads to the emergency room where the doctor told him he was fine, really, he just needed to move his bowels. Another cabin in Idaho where a wood rat came out of the baseboards one evening and my brother’s wife yelled and threw her shoe, and we stuffed the prescribed wads of steel wool in the hole which, each morning, we found scornfully shoved back into the room, the little bruiser of a rodent refusing to change its routine for us, and outside on the lid of the woodbox, on the front porch, every single day, we’d find the neat scatter of droppings in exactly the same place. Once again, I was sleeping where other lives went on about their own furry business, just on the other side of the cedar- and hemlock-paneled walls. My business was luxurious: I was at a writing residency.
A few times in my life I’ve been granted such opportunities: twice at Yaddo, the famous mansion in Saratoga Springs, New York, where I slept in what were obviously old servant quarters in odd ends of the house (one of which was rumored to have been the place where Raymond Carver had stayed) and looked out on the Edith Wharton-y gardens and wrote poems and an essay. I don’t believe there were mice, but there were bats, and some of the other writers reported at breakfast that they’d been chasing the animals with long-handled nets available for that very purpose. I wasn’t sure that was the smartest thing to do, but it was exciting. Then I typed on the very first laptop I ever owned and obsessed about backing up every document before I actually changed clothes and went down to dinner in the formal dining room. Once my “residence” was my very own tent, which I pitched in a big, grassy meadow near Mount St. Helens, where a group of scientists and writers had gathered on the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 eruption that sent ash as far east as Montana and Wyoming. I spent the days following scientists around and learning things I’d never thought to study in school, and started drafting poems and an essay. I wrote longhand in a notebook and hoped it wouldn’t ever get soaked in a rainstorm before I could get home to type things up. If there were mice around, I didn’t know it, but chipmunks scuttled around, hoping to steal something, probably from the man who hung prayer flags on his tent and always had granola, or dried mango, or something else to share. More recently I stayed in a brand new suite of rooms in Eureka Springs, in a 1950s era house that was a little Frank Lloyd Wrightish, which I figured was appropriate since three writers were there, all of whom at least said they appreciated the bad pun. The house had belonged to a woman from Chicago who retired to Eureka Springs and after she built it she didn’t look after it well, so when the writer’s colony board of directors acquired the place, they had to tie the house to the largest trees while a new foundation was poured. I saw the pictures, so I know this is true. I went for long walks in the hills of the resort town and worked three essays at once, all of which sort of bled into one another in a relaxed, resort-ful way which I still haven’t sorted out. There were definitely no mice, but an electric-blue skink lived just outside the front door and I kept trying to get a photo of him with the phone which I was forbidden to use in the building (we all were quiet as, well, church mice there) but he was too quick.
The last, the one I just returned from as the semester began, was in Oregon. An initiative called the Spring Creek Project allowed two artists who would benefit from talking and working together (“synergistic,” the website said). A poet (and painter) who teaches in Washington and I applied together; we knew we’d benefit from the time because, as Janie said, “we’ve been in conversation for nearly two decades.” She studied creative writing and painting at K-State years ago, and even though then I was her mentor, she’s moved way beyond that stage in her career. We’re colleagues now. We both were writing about extinction, and efforts to avoid extinction, and the human predilection to doom other species to extinction. We picked a reading list together and read the same books to talk about. Janie spent a lot of time in the clearcut across the creek and wrote an essay about paperclips as an invasive species. I hiked in the restored forest around the cabin and in larger sections of state forest up the road that was slated to be logged soon and kept plugging away at one of the essays I’d started in Eureka Springs and overhauled some poems I’d been keeping in a drawer for a few years (okay, not really—they were in a file on the thumb drive I brought, but I like the dead metaphor of “in a drawer” since I’m writing about extinction these days). And I thought about all the resources—time, energy, space, transportation—get funneled towards artist residencies; what a luxury, I kept thinking.
But it’s also a necessity. In each of these spaces, I grew expansive and made connections I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I found myself writing long, clause-y sentences where one thing merged with another and the energy of the word “and” seemed to carry me back into memory (my mother’s been gone for nearly 30 years but I remember her shout so clearly) and forward into hope—hope of all kinds. I hope the cougar Janie heard behind the cabin is allowed to keep his or her private, sharp-toothed life in the restored forest. I hope the skink has a gentle winter in Arkansas. I hope the species I’ve been studying in New Zealand have a fighting chance—the flightless kiwi that murk around in the forest and are sometimes called honorary mammals; the weta, a cricket the size of a mouse, for example. I hope I keep a sense of that expansiveness from the summer experience even while fall turns into winter; I hope I can protect that rich, focused relation between thinking and writing from the KSOL headaches, and the perennial problem of parking near campus, and the fact that the email might go out just when I want it most. And since I hope those things I’m going to work harder to make them come true. Facebook doesn’t really need me. My smart phone makes me dumber as a writer. I suppose sometimes I really do need to shut the door. Probably most people who might read any of this blog won’t want to go sleep in a cabin with a bunch of mice, but I think every writer needs “space” (mental and literal) for expansive writing. I think everyone needs to be nudged a little into thinking about how the personal connects with all the larger-than-the-self stuff—the lives that go on independent of yours. And I hope that this very semester offers everyone at K-State the chance to talk with people in ways that enliven their imagination and their sentences, as well as the chance to shut the door and think about how one specific connects with another, and another, and another.
Elizabeth Dodd teaches creative nonfiction, poetry, and literature classes at Kansas State University. Her latest book is nonfiction: Horizon’s Lens, from University of Nebraska Press.