The Clearing




My story “Cleared-Away Space” appeared in this edition of “The Professor’s Quarters” by After Hours Press. The lady I mentioned in the beginning of the story was my first writing mentor. Barbara Fitz Vroman. She is the one who introduced me to my second writing mentor, Norbert Blei. Barbara passed away May 7, 2012. Norbert passed away April 23, 2013. I miss them both. Deeply.

My story appears on page 13.

Cleared-Away Space.

I drove into The Clearing, a place I had never heard of until a week before, in a car I had never driven before. A 1990 Buick. An old car by current standards, but new to me. None of the levers or knobs were where they were supposed to be. So different from my truck. It was Barbara Vroman’s car. She was teaching at The Clearing that fall and she had managed to procure a place for me in her writing class. The campus was full that weekend due to the trees, the leaves in full color, so I was to stay in the “Professor’s Quarters” with her on Friday and Saturday night.

We followed the road winding back to the campus on the cliffs overlooking the bay, found the parking lot tucked under the trees just as the sun was setting, a pink and magenta halo upon the water. So unlike other campuses I’d seen or heard about. So different than the ones full of cement, blacktop, overhead lights. I had no idea what they meant when they said ‘folk school’ but I began to form an idea of what this was all about when I entered the cabin and saw the braided wool rug. Rocking chairs. And bookcases filled with the best kind of books, with sturdy spines and nineteenth century fonts embossed in gold and black. Hand-stitched quilts on the beds. Quaint, old-world. It appealed to me.

I woke the next morning to the sound of a bell, a big bell, clanging, clanging. What the hell? Barbara was smiling. “Time to get up. You have 30 minutes until the next bell calls you to breakfast.” Breakfast for me was usually coffee, maybe a handful of nuts, a banana. I had no idea how my world was about to change.

I followed Barbara up the steps into a place she called ‘the lodge.’ There was a buzzing sound coming from inside, voices, laughter and the smell… Oatmeal? Cinnamon? Wafting, welcoming, warm. I didn’t know it before I arrived but I realized I had found my way home. A place filled with family-style meals three times a day, and when I looked closely, there were words, words everywhere.

cliffhousedoorI had found a place to wander down paths that had my name on them, quiet paths full of words and syllables, full of nature, a place littered with creativity around every corner. Paths that led to the workshopcliffhouseinside. The schoolhouse. The Cliff House. I didn’t say much that first time I was there, but I listened a lot. I found out how to get my name on the list to spend a night at The Cliff House with the cedar twig in the door, to keep good spirits in and bad spirits out. I dragged the sleeping bag inside the tiny cabin built into the side of the cliff and used my flashlight to see as I found the matches, lit the candles, the fire. I threw open the windows with no screens and felt the rush of wind from across the bay. It was autumn and there were no bugs. It was easy to breathe here. It was warm so I let the fire die down. I made a wish and slept with the window wide open all night and dreamed of Jens Jensen and Mertha Fulkerson dreaming up this place.

Before this I had spent countless hours planning to escape from civilization, somehow, to a place where I could hear the voices of the characters in my head, to write down their stories, and here, people understood that kind of quiet. After all this was The Clearing. A place to clear one’s head and heart. Here were old souls, whispering souls, let-me-tell-you-a-story souls. They understood the power of not interrupting someone who was thinking, listening when the characters were ready to speak. Or was it just the land, the waves, the paths, the air that gave birth to such silence?

The next year I signed up for Norbert Blei’s writing class. Everyone knew who Norb was, I thought, except me. They said he was good, the best. He was the one who could show you where the stories were, the ones buried inside you, the ones hidden in the bark of the trees, in the rustle of leaves, in the splash of waves against the rocks, in the shssh of the sawdust under your feet, the sawdust on the paths of The Clearing, the paths that led to everywhere, everywhere your mind could take you.

And who were these people in his class, these writers? I didn’t know anyone, but I fell in love with Ralph Murre’s poems, with Susan’s meditative walks, Alice’s trees and Jackie’s straight-forward stories. Where I came from, I wasn’t even sure men could read, and here were men shifting words from one sentence to another looking for the right rhythm, setting them in straight lines like the bricks my father laid in straight rows.

Women were baring their souls without shame, with laughter even. I was terrified that my paltry stories wouldn’t fit in, that I wouldn’t bare enough of my soul or that I would bare too much. I didn’t know the rules, the faces, the big words. But my hand kept moving across the blank pages in my notebook as Norb repeated, “Write about your neighborhood where you grew up,” even though I couldn’t recall a neighborhood. When I was little I had never lived next-door to anyone. I lived across the field, across the prairie. Was that the same? We didn’t interact with people, I hardly knew their names. Should I make something up? I remembered we had room on the prairie, wide open space where the wind blew, with nothing to stop it save some loblolly-like pines on the northeast corner. The wind blew the sand into every crevice, in the house, in our clothes, in the food. We had a lot of crevices but not too many books.

I remember we had plenty of men. With tractors and cows and stuff they planted in the dirt, expected it to grow. And most times it did. It was a hard life full of work that didn’t end, work that took time, lots of time, but we had as much time as we had wind. But who would want to read about that?

Apparently these people wanted to hear these kinds of stories. They wanted to share their stories. They folded their hands, leaned in on their elbows, closed their eyes, nodded their heads. They smiled and breathed in, breathed in the words. I finally understood the clearing was the first step. Cleaning out the cobwebs, the limiting beliefs, the chaos of a society gone mad. The next step was to let the new ideas slide into the cleared-away space. Ideas one could apply to poems, to stories. Ideas one could apply to life and in doing so, change everything.

J. Eger 2011



5 Responses

  1. Julie, thank you for sharing your experience, captured as only you can. I love your writing. I think of my luck and joy at sharing space there with you, of rocks and water and the outpouring of stories through pen on paper. Of today, how the meaning of *clearing* is underscored for me here. How I am breathing in your words, all the Clearing words, my words, and all the swirling before the words form. Bonnie

  2. Hey Stranger! So good to hear from you! Thanks for the comment. Paula Kosin is keeping me up-to-date with everyone, and what a nice surprise for find your comment here. Wishing you all the best and huge and massive break-throughs and insights with your writing. You are one awesome lady! 🙂

  3. Hi Julie – this piece brought tears to my eyes, of course, because it reminded me of my mother and how much she loved the Clearing for all the reasons you mentioned. A great slice of life that you captured and I will treasure.

  4. Perfect.

  5. Reminds me of my experiences in the continuing Ed classes that I’ve taken in Rhinelander. One with Bruce Dethlefsen two summers ago in particular. A great experience for sure. How difficult and intimidating it was for me to expose my poetry for the first time. I remember a friend asking me after ” so did you feel like a total Rube or could you hold your own”. My answer… Both… Great story Julie.

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