Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Word Problem

Blogger: Wendy Burk

Poet Wendy Burk translated While Light is Built by Tedi Lopez-Mills (Kore Press, 2004) and contributed to the audio CD Autumnal (Kore Press, 2006).

The math seems excruciatingly easy. Take two women; add one Honda Insight; one winding country road; one dark night; one moose, towering symbol of the Maine countryside. Add them all together and what have you got? Can’t be pretty, the mind answers.

Still, the figures don’t tell you that much. Let’s look closer. The women: New England born and bred, sweethearts since college, married just over eight years. Kate’s a theater buff, Erica’s a bookmaker; both writers, singers, horse lovers. The Insight: tiny little hybrid with two seats and a top-secret jet pack concealed in the back. Always gets smiles and waves from strangers on the road. At the moment of our equation, speeding happily along in Aroostook County for a visit to Kate’s parents—Aroostook County in the Maine North Woods, “where moose outnumber people.” The winding country road: trees glinting briefly in headlights from both sides, and the feel of eternal descent, even when the road begins to climb. The dark night: dark. So dark, in fact, that when the headlights shatter it’s impossible to see what’s been hit, by whom. The moose: how big is a moose? About seven feet tall, ten feet long, weighs half a ton or more. When car and moose collide, something’s bound to break; perhaps, we fear, to die.

But don’t be afraid. This story is a little sad, but not too sad. Kate was bruised and jostled; Erica had whiplash; both were shaken and sore. The Insight valiantly gave its life for its human cargo: just what you’d hope and expect a hybrid car to do, right? The moose (as you may have guessed, this is the sad part) was killed. There was fur all over the road, they said.

So take a deep breath; it didn’t add up like you feared. And this is just the start. Now add something new to the equation: books, lots of them, read during recovery at the parents’ house in New Sweden, Maine. Books like Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe County, chronicle of a journey through southern Ontario with a big blue van and a nursing baby daughter. Books like William Least Heat Moon’s PrairieErth and River Horse, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. Add, also, once the insurance payments come in, a considerably larger, but not too gas-greedy, Subaru. And slowly, add a question and a decision in the eyes of our two heroes.

There: it’s decided, and as suddenly as we began to add, it’s time to subtract. Take away one house, one dog, two fluffy cats, a lively social circle; pack up the piano and the books themselves. Take away two jobs and health insurance; subtract COBRA for Erica (courtesy Defense of Marriage Act) and income of any sort. Take away all that’s familiar and safe, and what we have left is two women, a Subaru, and one great idea.

What are they doing? They’re pointing the Subaru west, of course. They’re taking off, heading out. They’re driving away the moose, as they put it, lest the ghost of the moose start driving them away. They’re going to drive, and see, and write about it. How far? Well, all the way here, and all the way back, at a bare minimum. How long? No idea—how many years have they got?

What I love about this is that they wrote their own ticket. They didn’t wait for their grant, their sabbatical, their reprieve, their at-last-the-time-is-right. They have health stuff to deal with, money worries; they miss their pets (responsibly domiciled in New Sweden with the folks, be it said). They’re not being particularly practical; they don’t have a book deal; they don’t know where this will end. They just added it all up for themselves and said, well, your car could be hit by a moose (or, depending on your perspective, your moose could be hit by a car) at any time; you might as well travel with the one you love and leave a written record.

So, as my mom would say, it’s not a word problem, it’s a word opportunity. And what does it add up to for you? Maybe you’re one of those who could leave it all behind tomorrow, like Erica and Kate. Maybe you’re not. But what’s been flickering in your mind while you read these words: any hopes, any regrets, any ideas?

Two women, one Honda Insight, one road, one dark night, one moose, my words, this story, and you—what answer did you get?

To follow Kate and Erica’s epic journey West (and back), visit

No comments: