Blog of artist and poet, Michelle Seaman

Learning Space

“If you walk long enough, your crowded head clears
like how all the cattle run off loudly as you approach.
The fence is a good fence, but I doubt my own haywire
will hold up to all this blank sky, so open and explicit.
I’m like a fence, or a cow, or that word yonder.”

-Ada Limon from “During the Impossible Age of Everyone”
within the collection Bright Dead Things

It is spring, and if it were a usual spring, after the longer, gray months of winter, I would be going to visit my family in Florida or Wisconsin or Colorado.

But it is not a usual spring. Not here in New York. Not anywhere. Not at all.

We are not planning any trips. We are healthy, so we staying inside, trying to stay hopeful, trying to not overwhelm ourselves with negative information nor allow fear to get the best of us.

As each day within this quarantine passes, I look to things to lift me- my poetry and the poems of others, Benjamin’s laugh, messages and conversations with family and friends, magical connections between people physically far away but communicating and near at the same time, people trying their best in my quiet neighborhood, and most of all, nature outside my window and in my imagination.

Admittedly, I am carrying a sadness, or as my wise writer-friend Mary advises, I am “making space for the grief.” Daily, I am acknowledging that suffering is around me. I am writing poems, listening for anything in nature to call to me. I am calling back with all my might, allowing my memories to comfort, my poetic lines to teach, to mourn, to accept.

One memory is of last summer, when Benjamin and I boarded Amtrak for a long train ride from New York to Chicago, then out to Colorado, and back.

The trains generally follow water, so from Croton we cruised up the Hudson River, viewing the chalky Palisades and smoky Appalachians in the distance. Along the tracks, I saw some of my favorite wildflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace and tiger lilies. We passed marshes with red-winged black birds balancing on cattails and herons stepping gracefully through the water. These aspects in nature felt comforting, nostalgic, like when I was a kid sitting next to a marsh in Wisconsin.

We arrived in Albany around twilight, and like many towns in upstate New York, this one had rocky, vertical hills and plenty of architectural charm. It was lovely, but in my head I heard a repeating phrase, “Not mine, not mine.”

My first home was Wisconsin, a land of long, rolling hills, farms, coniferous and deciduous forests, and glacial rock formations stacked up around the rivers and lakes. I was raised out in the country, spending my childhood listening for whippoorwills, building forts out of rocks and prairie grass, gathering hickory nuts, napping in trees. I slept on the ground there too, camping in places like: Rocky Arbor State Park, Castle Rock State Park, Shawno Lake County Park and Flanagan’s Pearl Lake Family Campground. In those places, I met my first pen pal, went on nature scavenger hunts and swam in cold freshwater lakes. I also lived in Minnesota, hiking alone in at Afton State Park and with friends at Taylor’s Falls and Gooseberry Falls. One autumn, on a trail with a friend in upper Minnesota, we met a black bear. We had spooked her, so at first, she ran, but then she stopped and turned to look at us. I will never forget how my heart felt at that moment-afraid, yes, but only for a second, because the sheer beauty of her big face, her black fur against all those autumn colors mesmerized me.

My second home was Florida, a place noted for sunrises over the Atlantic and sunsets over the Gulf. I have biked and rollerbladed on many Florida trails: The Withlacoocohee State Trail, Flatwoods County Park Trail, The Pinellas State Trail and parts of the Suncoast Trail. I slept in the sand at Hillsborough State Park where I was awakened by an opossum trying to poke underneath my tent. I walked on the beach to the sound of the Atlantic waves at Anastasia State Park. At St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, I camped on the beach, watching the dolphins at sunset and later the bioluminescent jelly fish under the moon. I lived in soft, humid air, and I found the wet heat soothing, relaxing. I lived where there were subtle changes to the light. In Florida, I could generally guess clock time by the color of the sky. My resting state of mind is a Florida sky, open and wide. Unfortunately, too many humans have chosen to fill in the spaces of Florida with strip malls and drive throughs, and the traffic is incessant. As a young person, I liked cars. I embraced the restless romanticism of the open road, but now, I do not like being in a car much at all. I love my legs and my bike. For me, Florida deserves more trails and bicycles, less cars, but she is my home. When I’m there, I hear it, “Mine, mine.”

Because I come from these two regions, there is something in my body that needs outward space, so as much as I admire and appreciate New York’s vertical landscape, I know it is not within me.

The train turned west, and I nodded off to sleep. I don’t remember Buffalo or any smaller towns, but I woke up to a giant ship directly out the window, and I knew I was in Erie.

It was then that I felt the shift.

It wasn’t the enormous scale of the ship or some connection to northern Pennsylvania. It was that Great Lake. It was knowing that I had left the Eastern seaboard, and I was in the Midwest, heading home.

There is a faded softness, a pale blue, paper-gray to Midwest skies. It is a place where, even though it is grey through many months of the year, you can always see and feel the sky. Summer smells like hay, sharp pine sap, pungent manure. Winter smells like snow. The hills and fields go on and on and on, the horizon is vast. My head empties. I can think.

I can breathe.

It is the space.

And maybe part of my humanity as well.

I am a descendant of Polish and German people- farmers, hunters, fishermen and women. I am from quiet people attached to land and water, humans comfortable alone, content in nature.

Feeling the Midwest outside my train window relaxed me, and I heard it, “Mine. Home. Mine.”

The cities in the Midwest are a part of my personal history too. When the Chicago skyline appeared, I smiled. Benjamin and I met, fell in love and began our lives as artists in Chicago. As we disembarked from the train, we both felt the difference between Chicago and New York City. No one crowded us. People made space and were patient, even after the long ride. Maybe because Carl Sandburg’s “city of broad shoulders” is wide, people can naturally give each other room as they walk on the sidewalks. This is design. There is simply more space to give.

We exhaled.

Our dear friend, Irina, greeted us with big hugs and kisses on our cheeks. It is easy to be with Irina. She’s intelligent, curious, clever and funny as hell. She lives in the moment, making the most of time with friends, diving deep into conversations that would make all the salons in history jealous. Irina and I have known each other as long as Benjamin and I have been together, 18 years, and each visit with her is lovelier than the last. This time we discussed everything from politicians to traveling to Yo Yo Ma (who was playing a free concert in Millennium Park that weekend) to our latest favorite books and television shows. We had a perfectly wine buzzy lunch at our favorite Mexican Restaurant, Frontera Grill, and the afternoon could not have been better.

Later, we met up with more friends, Eric and Stephen. Both of them were so engaging and open. As I listened, I realized I missed a particular quality that both of them had. They knew the art of conversation, how to be totally present, ask sincere questions, keep a balance of vulnerability and self-confidence. They were neither cocky nor whiney. They were not anxious nor distracted. They did not interrupt, talk incessantly about themselves or try to fill the quiet space when the conversation subsided and thoughts required rest. I think Midwesterners may understand something East Coasters are now trying to learn, and again, I think it has to do with the land.

We give each other room.

It is about space.

As a Midwesterner, I love my friends deep as a sandstone quarry, so leaving Chicago was hard. I wanted more time, but we were Colorado bound to see beloved family, to experience their lives and land, so we boarded the train.

Riding across Kansas toward Denver made me remember something a former train companion of mine once said. Dan was visiting from England. He looked out the window as we were leaving Albuquerque, passing the Rockies far, far in the distance. He said, “Your country is vast.” Yes Dan, it goes on forever, and it takes a while to get across it.

There were thunderstorms that night across the plains. They were scary and beautiful.

Because I spent my young adulthood in Florida, a lightning capital, a hurricane place, I am somewhat conditioned to storms. Still, I keep a solemn respect for fire across the sky and wind that can take your house. This respect runs deep in my bloodline, my history.

My parents lived through one of the worst tornados to hit Wisconsin, and when I was a child, a tornado jumped over our house, taking our neighbor’s barn roof with it. We huddled in our basement listening to it whine. I vaguely remember playing Noah’s Ark with my brothers, having gathered our dog and kittens into safety.

We must experience fear differently as children. My brothers and I felt afraid for our animals, protective, but we also saw an opportunity to break the rules, insisting that our loved ones had to be in the house with us. We made it a party.

Meanwhile, my dad talked about how when he was little, he and his brother played in the wind before that tornado hit, opening their jackets and pretending to fly like Superman. My mom was quiet, listening, stoically watching the sky through the small basement window. She had memories of cows flying through the air and hay shooting through tree trunks. She lost a classmate to that storm.

My parents are still in Florida, and they’ve become resigned to dealing with extreme weather. Once, while my dad and I were in Chicago, and a hurricane was threatening Tampa, we called to check on my Mom. “Oh, I’m fine,” she said, “I’m in the tub with some Merlot. It’ll pass.” She made it a party.

As much as I want to carry that kind of wild courage with me, I struggle to hold onto it, particularly now as I’ve aged and when I’m in certain situations. I was scared watching those storms, but it was sort of familiar, and nothing compared to what I was about to experience.

We arrived in Denver in the morning. Everyone stepped off the train to take a much needed break. I immediately felt the lightness of the air and an unfamiliar wooziness in my body. Thinking that I might be affected by the altitude, I had packed some ginger candy and popped one into my mouth. I looked at the Rockies, this time not so vast in the distance, this time ascending straight up, highest peaks I had ever seen.

The trains generally follow water.

Not this one. Not exactly.

I have ridden trains all over the various regions of our giant country-The Silver Meteor, from New York to Tampa, The Empire Builder, from Minneapolis to Seattle, The West Coast Starlight, from Seattle to Los Angeles- but I had not ridden the California Zephyr through the heart of the Rockies.

That train climbed to 10,000 feet.

I was a on a train in the sky.

I am afflicted with a lack of serotonin in my brain. This causes a kind of anxiety and a specific claustrophobia. In certain situations, I am unable to breathe properly. I feel it most when my body is enclosed in metal, traveling faster, or differently, than it could on its own. I feel this intensely on planes, a little less so on city buses or in cars (buses because of the short distances, cars if I can take breaks and travel back roads).

Up until this trip, I felt anxiety least on trains, but as we climbed, it kicked in- hard. I gripped the doorway of our cabin, and tried to breathe, tried not to cry. Poor Benjamin tired to calm me, be calm for me, but it was not working like it usually does. A couple passed by, giddy and drunk and marveling at the view. They were stumbling, happy, making it a party. I wanted to hold onto their joy, and I could hear Colorado trying to speak to me. She said, ” C’mon, look. I am stunning. Look at me. I am undeniably beautiful with all my varying colors and shapes and rocks and sheerness of my height. Look at me. I am breath taking.” Unfortunately, I could not look. Fear literally took my breath in the form of a 6-hour panic attack.

On that Zephyr, I felt trapped. Maybe if I had been on foot, trusting my own weight to hike those canyons, digging treads into the dirt with fresh air around me, maybe it would have felt better.

When we finally descended into Glenwood Springs, when we were less than a mile from departing and beginning our vacation with our family, the train hit a rock (really a boulder). It was the loudest boom I had ever heard. The train was stuck just above the rapids of the Colorado River. My nerves were shattered, and I thought I would truly lose my mind. All I wanted was to get the hell off that train, hug my mother-in-law and get myself a drink. Eventually the conductor said that situation was addressed, the train moved, and we finally united with our loved ones.

It was time to breathe, to be in Colorado.

I thought I could ground myself, maybe hike a bit, now that I wasn’t on a flying train, but alas, I still had more to learn about Colorado and my body.

We visited Ouray and Aspen, two places where hiking may have been possible for me, but the elevation continued to challenge. The sidewalks in both towns felt wavy, making me a bit dizzy. I was also dehydrated. I could not drink enough water to balance the dry air sucking all the moisture from my skin. I couldn’t enjoy my usual quota of wine or cocktails with my family, because even small sips of alcohol made me woozy.

But I heard an echo from that land.

It was not clear, but I leaned in to hear it. I wanted to know the language. I wanted to be comfortable with this different horizon, this space that was up, not out.

My body learns things slowly, so I knew I might not learn it on that trip, in just a week’s time, but I’d keep trying, because while the Colorado mountains challenged me, I liked the valleys. I was having a blast with my mothers-in-law in the Roaring Fork Valley and my brother and sister-in law, nieces and nephew in the Uncompahgre Valley. We ate delicious food, played board games and laughed. We listened to the kids play gorgeous music on piano, violin, cello and harp, and we learned more about their visual art projects. We shopped, visited galleries, museums, and the John Denver Sanctuary. We talked and talked and enjoyed each other’s company. I got to know the kids better through individual chats, and this meant the world to me. I loved their senses of curiosity, adventure and humor. I loved how they listened. I loved them.

And Coloradans were lovely. Whenever we went into a restaurant or a shop or a grocery store, people were friendly, open, and aware of giving each other physical space. Again, I think this is regional. Perhaps when you have space in an aspen forest or on a mountain that reaches 14,000 feet, you understand. You feel it. With this understanding, you join your species in public places, and you extend that courtesy, offering space.

This I understand.

All this said, I must acknowledge my privilege for needing space. I know from teaching international students that much of the rest of the world does not have this luxury. And now that Benjamin and I live in the most congested region of the United States, now that the world is trying to quell a pandemic, we United Statesians are learning hard lessons of space giving. People in New York City in particular are trying to figure out how to grant space when there is less of it to give.

I’ve been living here, just a 40 minute train ride north of New York City for the past five years. Trips from my little river towns into the city used to involve steeling myself against the onslaught of sensory overload, but once I settled in a cafe or on a park bench, I could adjust for a while, and I loved the experience.

I loved how the city made my poetry feel. I loved drinking way too much coffee at Think Coffee and writing for hours. I loved hanging out in The Algonquin Hotel, drinking a cocktail with the spirit of Dorothy Parker, shopping at The Strand or Books of Wonder, meandering through museums and galleries, walking on the High Line. I loved watching the rhythmic fashion show that is New York City, but I could only do this every now and then.

I needed nature more.

I needed space.

The city is narrow and obviously crowded, so it’s harder to offer space, but here in the river towns, it is totally possible. Unfortunately, space granting has not been my experience.

When we first moved here, and while I still walking with a cane, I was physically bumped as I stood in line at two different library book sales, jostled while shopping at a church thrift sale, stepped on and shoved at two different grocery stores. People also consistently stood or spoke uncomfortably close to my body and face. I was not used to this. I felt protective of my hip, because I did not want to lose my balance, fall, and hurt it even more. I felt protective of my health. As much as I wanted to, I stopped going out as much, I lessened my social activity. This was fine for my writing but a bit weird for the part of me that likes my species.

I could go on with more examples of body space invasion, as well as countless examples of car crowding (being cut off or tailgated or yelled at is common driving behavior), but I do not want to do this.

Instead, I want to close this post with some love and a request, not just for New York, but for my whole, big, beautiful and messed up country.

New York, even though you are not mine, I respect you. I do not want to be scared of you. I did not want to be scared then, and I sure as hell do not want to be scared now. I see your beauty- you love art, you are intelligent and you are tough as nails. As I write this, the Covid map is showing that our Northeast region is staying put, slowing down. We are trying. Meanwhile, in the rest of our country, in the states where we all have loved ones, people are facing the danger of rising cases.

Government, on either side, can not make this change for us.

We have to do this.

Together in our communities. Tenderly. Patiently.

Individuality and freedom of choice are a part of who we are as residents of the United States, and people from different countries admire this, but with these advantages comes a responsibility. We must also co-exist within our small communities and in our cities.

So please, little villages, big cities, collection of states and regions…KEEP TRYING.

Apply this mandated social distancing- now AND when this is over.

I’d like to go out again with less fear.

I promise to grant you space, directive from a government or not.

Please give me space.

Let’s create a new way to be careful with one another.

Let’s be calm and patient, with less haywire anxiety and more open sky for all.