It’s finally Spring here in Charlottesville & the wind chimes on my porch are *killing* it right now.
It’s the smell of basil & tomato plants & potting soil & shorn grass & the kind of fat rain that doesn’t exist anywhere else, as far as I’m concerned. Sleeping on top of the sheets so that every sleep feels like just a nap in the dark.
In Spring, my love is a pollen. My love is the sky between branches. The kind of sky you can’t let a window get between you. The kind of day you can’t feel by looking at it; you have to get out & walk under it all. You have to look directly up at it. My love is the fat rain.
If the Fall is crisp, then Spring in Virginia is memory.
There is no room for anything man-made-precious this time of year. No holiday capitalism monuments (save for Mother’s Day obligations), no synthetic flowers, no indentured shopping servitude or family form letters.
Dear Everyone: There is nothing like just being in this weather. The birds are noisy with it. Love, A
Yes, certain of our made sounds—the lawnmower, the neighborhood church bells, the CSX train murmuring through town just two blocks from my house—are absorbed, adopted by the natural world, the way a tree trunk will grow around a piece of metal. But everything else is discarded as trite. We want to walk—anywhere, everywhere. We just want to feel it on us, & moving through us. Even inside my house—I love old Southern houses in Spring especially: not just for their sanctuary but for the way the outside air moves through them in this kind of weather. My house becomes un(ram)shackled in Spring.
I’ve lost a lot of memories over the years. Recently I’ve reconnected with a couple of people who I first knew 20 years ago or so (I have this habit, like picking up an old book of matches just to see if they’ll still strike), & when we reminisce, there are so many stories they tell about me, or us—things I did or said, things they did or said—& I have no recollection of those moments. Conversations feel like the first few steps of coming out of an amnesia. Memories are both questions & answers.
But I always remember with photographic clarity the view from the bedroom window of everywhere I’ve lived. The Wisteria in Richmond that grew towards my window with such purpose that I was, at times, afraid of it. The Pin Oak outside my second-floor Iowa City apartment, the one I somehow knew, even if the tornado came, it would have my back. I always place my bed in direct view of a tree & some sky. If I close my eyes, I can call each of them up with such clarity.
In Virginia, the legislative session runs from early January to—depending on odd or even years—the end of February or mid-to-late March. It is what I tend to call “actual winter,” even though the cold season in the Commonwealth slips through the door that the November leaves first propped open. Compared to the years I spent in Iowa, and certainly when held up against what people in the rest of the upper Midwest and Northeast experience every year, Actual Winter is just a kind of mountain fog: perceptively temporary though disorienting, inconvenient, grey. We have snow, not “the snow.” More typically, we have rain, & a kind of cold that approaches the bone, knocks & waits, lingers inappropriately.
Every day during the session, I drive from Charlottesville to Richmond to the General Assembly building. I park in my regular work lot—an open-air pay lot for which I am given a monthly pass & a reserved space. It sits only about two blocks and a half from the GAB, but seems a mile away during my constant days there, mostly because of Actual Winter, also known as “session weather.” Cold. Grey. Rain like boxes of staples dumped from the sky. Wet-feeling even when it’s not. Bitter beyond a description of the temperature—just bitter, period. All the onomatopoetics at play: trudge, wince, brisk.
Every day during session I drive to Richmond, walk the two blocks and a half to the GAB, enter the building & often do not exit it until 10+ hours later. It’s often dark in the mornings when I leave Charlottesville, and it’s always dark when I depart Richmond in the evenings. There is a cafeteria inside the building that provides a very decent short-order breakfast when there’s time, & a fairly decent salad bar for lunch, i.e., no real reason to leave the building during the workday. But even when I do actually walk outside to go home, it can often feel like those two blocks and a half, and the drive up I-64 are just all part of a bio-dome that holds me captive. A bio-dome called Actual Winter.
The thing about winter, unlike spring or summer, is that it tries to absorb you into it. It is the tree growing around the rusty metal bicycle that is your body, your thoughts. It grows over the invention of you.
But Spring knows you’re something else. A guest, or family, or a spectator—but definitely something other.
Spring is love because you come back to yourself—it’s not the object of your love that fills you; it’s that you are once again your own love’s subject.
During my undergraduate years, I was writing. I took poetry workshops every semester, and immersed myself in that work. But, to balance that anxiety, I also took photography workshops. It was pre-digital times—this was old-school, black-&-white film photography with manual 35mm cameras. We shot our own film, developed our own reels, printed our own shots, cut our own mats. Our crash diet was Ansel Adams’ Zone System. Our refrigerators held more bricks of T-Max 400 than actual food. We carried those burnt-sienna cardstock portfolios the size of a car doors from apartment to bus to studio and back again full of “our work.” We carried them no matter the weather. Trudge, wince, brisk.
One entered the darkroom through a rotating lightproof door that felt as though it relied on the same technology David Copperfield might to make a person disappear. Someone had, with masking tape and black magic marker, christened this door “The Orgasmatron.” I’d like to hope the tag is still there, but I’m not even sure the darkroom itself has survived the digital age.
A few times a week, I’d vanish into the darkroom to print photos, often going in when it was daylight & not coming out until dark. That time inside was not actually time—it was somewhere outside of it. Broken down on the side of a road. I was printing the past & I would not yet exist again until some time in the future when I left the darkroom. The portraits that emerged from the white photo paper were also held in their own moment—held still. Darkroom as a kind of winter.
There are times I don’t know if I’m feeling the distance or the time between us. There are times I remember things you’ve said to me but can’t hear you say them in my head. Mostly what I remember are snapshots, or moving pictures. Vignettes. Not just one room, but a series of rooms. Of time-lapse landscapes. A way you looked at me. The times you handed me a cup of coffee. The moments in between the things you said, like sky between branches, when you cocked your head to the side & smirked. Images saved & clipped up to dry in a darkroom. I rarely wonder what anyone is thinking, in a moment, but I wonder what you are thinking nearly constantly when I am with you. The way longing—most especially longing for the body—exists as accumulation, & settles in like weather. Sometimes spring, sometimes winter.
The South in warm weather sticks to the photographer Sally Mann—whose work has influenced my writing over decades—the way clothes stick with sweat to your back. Her family portraits & Virginia landscapes often seem like indistinguishable projects whether there are people depicted in the shots or not. Everything is feral.
Mann, as shown in the documentary “What Remains,” brings a makeshift darkroom with her on her shoot locations. She’s fitted the tailgate space of her SUV with lightproof tarps, fixer & stop trays, chemicals. She talks about how this on-site process is unavoidably fallible, how debris & other accidents render her plates & prints with flaws. Scars embedded in her work that have become embedded in her work. She loves them. She insists on their participation; the work is incomplete without it.
Do not die in the wintertime /
for there is no okra or sailboats
—Frank Stanford, “The Forgotten Madmen of Ménilmontant”
Other than being a lawyer, I’ve spent the greatest amount of time, all told, working in restaurants & bars. Those years living only at night. It’s now been over a decade since I pulled a shift, & I made a very intentional decision to leave that life. I actually sought out a kind of therapist for the year or so it took me to make a clean break.
Night work was, many times: freeing, powerful, great fun. But it was its own world—working three nights a week, I thought I’d have plenty of time to write, road-trip, take photos, cultivate a way of being that I controlled completely. After too many years, however, it became the opposite. I slept through days. My attention span was jittery, as was my health. It was a kind of depression, manifest as a work-life, itself something approaching addiction. I lived with a blanket thrown over my life.
The moment I got out of it felt like waking into, walking into a morning. Gradually I got to know the light again.
Recently, I found myself walking through a few different casino floors in Atlantic City. Or, rather, lost myself walking through them. These places are designed not just to block out daylight, but even more so to block out time. An underground city like an old, abandoned set of a bad sci-fi flick. I felt like I was composed entirely of surveillance camera pixels. That I was not quite human, even in a space designed to attract (& keep) humans. It felt as though all of these people around me, propped at slots & withered at craps tables, would still be in those same seats, the same age as at the moment I first saw them, if I came back to those floors 10 years later.
Writing itself can be an enclosed space, a darkroom. It’s why the Workshop is located in Iowa—nothing for miles except fields. Nothing to do but burn through procrastination & fear with booze & affairs before all that dust leads you to finally put down some words.
The rooms that hold us in can have walls or not, zip codes or not. What I am finally learning: one untetheringly great thing about writing is that it can be done anywhere. There are lists about lists about where writers write, & while I have my preferences & rituals, I’m starting to realize that I’ve done it just about everywhere. I don’t mean cafés or parks or commuter trains, or wherever the popular breakout stories insist works of genius are mundanely marveled into being.
But on road trips, & in between bar setup & the first customers, & in movie theaters on my smartphone after quickly dimming my screen brightness, & in manic three-word phrases while inside a boutique dressing room.
In someone else’s bed while they’re beautifully asleep beside me.
I’ve written everywhere, so I can write anywhere. But I choose to write in the South. Spring in the South is a big part of the burst of words I often feel each year. Whether I’m happy or broken, the moment I open my house’s windows—& especially the moment I leave them open still overnight—I know it’s going to begin. Whatever I put down on a page is incomplete without it.
Some of the light & the breeze that’s come through my open windows lately: