Saturday, September 02, 2006


standing in the river

I have been on a long journey, most of it not measured in miles.

It began with a train ride to New York City. Facing me in the quiet car, a young woman was heading back to school at NYU. She wore a pale blue t-shirt emblazoned with the words LOVE ONE ANOTHER and the miracle of her own youth and beauty with equal ease. While we traveled she studied a thick stack of fashion magazines as if they contained a secret she desperately needed to know.

Her mother was across the aisle. In her jeans and tank top, she had the kind of bright open face that made me wish we had been friends. Every now and then the daughter found something so important in her magazines that she crouched in the aisle to share it with her mother.

Though they spoke in hushed voices, the conductor warned them to be quiet. His tone was disproportionately harsh. Apparently, their shared excitement about life created too much *noise* for his sensibilities.

When I glanced at the mother, she rolled her eyes and whispered, "The man's got problems." We both smiled.

But people like the conductor could not touch this mother and daughter on the way to New York City. And they couldn't touch me either. As we approached the city, I felt a growing sense of exhilaration.

The first day Ted and I met an old friend we hadn't seen in nineteen years. We traipsed around Manhattan, talking as if the years had no weight at all. Finally, we ended up in a little trattoria in Soho where the food was tastier--and cheaper--than a similar meal would have been at home. From where we sit, we could look through the potted plants and see the fascinating circus of life passing by.

While we ate, our friend Paula told us how she had escaped from the 105th floor of the second tower on 9/11. Her story, obviously recounted many times, began this way: It was a beautiful day and I had just sat down with my iced coffee...

The next day was a business day. From my hotel, I walked to the elegant brownstone where so many of my hopes and dreams had, through a mysterious alchemy, been transmuted to reality by my wizard of an agent, Alice Tasman. Meeting a person I knew so well as a voice on the phone, but had never met, was an amazing experience. For the first hour or so, I grinned at her like a dope. It's really you!

From there, we headed over to Dutton, and then off to a wonderful lunch at LUPA with my editor, the publicity director, and the marketing director. Over the best gnocchi I've had outside of Bologna, I heard their exciting plans for my novel. I also met three interesting people, who like the woman on the train, I could easily see as friends.

After leaving New York, Ted and I stopped at home long enough to pick up Lexi and Emma and then headed to Northampton, the small town where I spent ten years of my life, and the place where I've probably felt more at home than anywhere else on earth.

I met a friend who had been a true sister to me. For at least twenty years, we had never gone a day without talking. But somehow we too had been separated by time and distance. Reunited, we talked, we ranted, we hugged; and more than once I felt myself about to weep by some of the things life had demanded of us.

Later, we went by the apartment where I had once been intensely happy and stood staring at number on the door as if it could tell us the secret of that happiness. We walked the short distance to the elementary school where my oldest sons had walked across the lawn to attend kindergarten, their Superman lunchboxes in hand, and begun the process of leaving home.

We sat on the grass. We stared into the woods where we had buried our cat, Rainbow. We walked down the street where I had jogged hundreds of miles, inventing stories in my head as I ran; we passed the restaurant where I worked, the place where Ted and I first met.

We went to the church where we had been married, but the doors were locked. That's when I realized that all the doors had been locked. Neither the old apartment or the happiness we had felt there would readmit us. We could look into the past all we wanted, but it remained impenetrable.

That night I couldn't sleep. Around two I got up and sat in a chair in our hotel suite, listening for the sound of the train for a long time. After it passed, I went back and again tried to sleep. Failing, I got up and sat by the window where I'd listened for the train and wrote a poem. Whether it was the poem or the sound of the train that released me, I'm not sure, but when I was finished, I was finally ready to rest.

The next day we went to the river, and put our feet in the icy water and listened to its sounds the way I had listened to the train the night before. There in that chilly current, I made peace with all the things that had troubled and excited and agitated me on my long journey: the way life eventually slams all its doors on you, and separates you from people you love, the inescapable loneliness of a train's whistle late at night, the sobering truth that even on a beautiful day, when you set out with your iced coffee in hand, you might be asked to surrender your life.

I suppose the reason I couldn't sleep, the reason I took out my notebook and searched for a poem as dawn approached was because I thought there was an answer to those things. And I thought it was my job to find it. But listening to the sound of the water, I realized there was only this: standing in the river and feeling the cold water, the sun, and the wind as it all flowed past.


Crockhead said...

Wow, Patry, you've done it again. What a moving, but never maudlin, essay. This is one I'm going to want to re-read several times.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is very thoughtful and life-searching writing, Patry!

Zhoen said...


Patry Francis said...

amishlaw: Thank you for reading. Just the sight of that Amish child's smile is enough to provoke one in return.

marja-leena: Thank you!

zhoen: And to you, too, dear...

Sky said...

i can hardly wait to get my copy of the liar's diary! i love to read your words!

what a fabulous journey you recently made - emotionally, physically, and all happened, didn't it? :)

Sustenance Scout said...

Thanks for taking us to the river with you, Patry. And to New York, and through your sleepless night of soul-searching. While the past may seem impenetrable at times, thankfully it also offers up plenty of fodder for literary projects. And you're certainly one writer who can put such material to very good use.

Kerstin said...

Such beautiful and rich writing, Patry. How wonderful to know someone who was so close and escaped 9/11, that side of this tragic event must never be forgotten, either.

It is amazing to me that the place where I live feels so much like home to you, yet I know that this is a feeling that I will never share. Nonetheless, your sentiment helps me appreciate my new hometown more. And next time you visit and have the time, I would love to meet you for a coffee at the Woodstar!

Welcome back.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

A marvellous, meditative post, Patry. I love the insight and power of that final sentence.

Dale said...


Wot they all said :-)

rdl said...

oh my!!

floots said...

loved this for its factual wander through a small part of your life
but then for than wonderful ending
thank you

steve on the slow train said...


A wonderful piece of writing. And as an Amtrak employee, my apologies for the conductor. The quiet car was established for people who wanted to get away from cellphones, noisy laptops, and loud people. Talking in a quiet tone of voice is not out of line.

Anonymous said...

I never know whether to be upset or thrilled when I find someone who is a far, far better writer than I am. :^)

One of the... most indescribable things about moving to New York is that I continually meet people who begin stories with "I was there on 9/11." This will be my first in NY while in the workforce. It will be strange to be around such people on that day.

Thanks for your blog comment!

Dave said...

Now you've got me singing Al Green under my breath...

robin andrea said...

Such a beautiful meditation, Patry. The journey within the journey, train rides and train whistles, locked doors that unlock other others. You describe so well the deepest insight that calms the heart for sleep.

Brenda Clews said...

You are referring to so many aspects and parts of your life, each memory like a fold on an origami, the origami being this essay, that it could get out of hand. But your exquisite sense of balance, how to say just enough of each scene, aspect, memory to suggest and not overwhelm the reader, and sense of writerly structure holds it all together. Not just impressive, but inspiring. Thank you for taking us on this crucial journey too!

Anonymous said...

. . . yeah . . . doors, memories, life . . . yes :)

Katherine said...

. . . yeah . . . doors, memories, life . . . yes :)

Patry Francis said...

sky: You're so right; it all happened. THank you for your wonderful comment.

scout: Did I mention that I finished your amazing novel on the train, and that it, too, was part of my long journey?

kerstin: I was thinking of you when I was in Northampton--and recalling that you felt the same sense of home when you were in Vancouver. Walking down Main Street, I also wondered where your apartment was; and when I was in State St. Market, I thought of you buying Babybel cheese with your mother. Yes, the next time I'm there--who knows, maybe even to live--we'll have to meet for coffee.

pohanginapete: Thank you. When I last visited your place, it seemed that you had been on a similar journey. Different means of travel, of course, but a similar destination.

dale: Thank you for leaving a stone. It will make a fine soup.

r: is that a good oh my or a bad oh my?

floots: you always find the most perfect and unique phrase--i.e. "factual wander." Thank you for them, and for your presence here.

Steve: I can well appreciate the need for the quiet car. On the way home, a guy sat behind us who talked on his cell phone, non-stop from New York to Boston. By the time I got there, I knew more about his life than my own. And the conductor on that trip more than made up for the overzealousness of his counterpart. I was particularly impressed when a young Chinese girl had a question. He searched through every car until he found a translator for her.

ghostgirl: What a lovely compliment, though the joy of writing is that it's not a competitive sport; I, too, admired the stream of words on your blog. I would love to be living in New York beginning a new job! Good luck and be sure to wear your red shoes!!!

dave: Take me to the river?

robin: You always understand exactly what I meant to say. Thank you for that.

brenda: I love what you say about the origami--and you pinpoint the misgivings I had when I began to write this piece. Usually when I write a post, I'm focused on one theme. This post wandered and looped all over the landscape--kind of like the train ride that began it. Thank you for reassuring me that in the end, it came together.

Kate: speaking of doors, I'm happy to see that blogger is letting you in mine again. I've missed you.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Patry, I LOVE this post--tt brought tears to my eyes. There's so much life in it. It's so easy to think of our lives as being lived linear-ly...when so often we're traveling in a circle...finding ourselves once again where we started...or at least started a significant chapter. And your trip to N.Y. sounds like it was so fun and exciting! I'm so very thrilled for you re your book. Please tell me they plan to send you on tour...hopefully to the West Coast?? ;)

chuck said...

What seems to be an ending...may be a new beginning. As doors close behind us, new ones, it seems.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

Beautiful, Patry! You've captured precisely how I feel when I go back to visit my most beloved childhood hometown, and you've helped me to accept the sound of the river that never stops flowing and changing. Thank you!

rdl said...

good of course, just meant like overwhelming good.

Anonymous said...

For me, writing helps with a diagnosis when I'm feeling unsettled...and often is the remedy! What else can do that?

I enjoyed hearing about the inner and outer weavings of your trip!

Granny said...

What a lovely post. I'll be reading more of your blog and you're welcome to visit us anytime.

Thanks for your thoughts. Worried Amrican has a grandson over there and my son isn't off the hook just yet. It's personal, as well as political for all of us.

Best wishes for your writing career. My other son works at Barnes & Noble and I'll ask him to watch for it.

(Unless you'd like to send a general announcement at time of publishing that is).

Ann (aka granny)
Is America Burning

Also at "roc rebel granny" which is where clicking on my name will take you. It's confusing.

Patry Francis said...

marilyn: Linear is good when doing a math problem (which I was never good at) but circular is much better for creating poetry or trying to make sense of your life.

chuck: Doors are an interesting subject. We close them to keep the world out--which is sometimes good and necessary, but we ourselves sometimes find ourselves trapped behind them.

sharon: I guess that's why we became poets!

r: I should've known you're always in my corner. xo

colleen: I recently read about a scientific study that backs up what you say here: people who write down their experiences not only understand them better, they consider themselves "happier" than people who don't. I, for one, would be crazy (or okay craziER) if I didn't keep a notebook around at all times.

granny: Bless the mothers! You are doing some important work.

Patry Francis said...
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Patry Francis said...
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Rebekah said...

This post reads much like the introductory chapter of a new novel. Lucious.

rdl said...

i agree with living part deux - it does sound like the introductory chapter of a novel - The Northampton Chronicles. Maybe someday.
Your third or fourth.
I can still here Bobby yelling at closing - hotel/motel time - don't wake up with a lizard.

David Edward said...

beautifully told, your adventures, and the way you phrase them, are drawing us into your world

Becca said...

how exciting ... all of it. It's so marvelous to experience a sense of fulfillment of purpose and gifting ... to be on the right path! congratulations ...

Ivy said...

A very poignant piece, interspersed with loving details and the excitement of the book! My heart lurches from quiet happiness to longing to a feeling of hardwon serenity -- thank you for this.

Fred Garber said...

Patry, so dreamy and so real at the same time. You grabbed me and took me with you on your trip. Two requests. Please describe the gnocci and the sauce that was on it....and can you share with us the poem that you wrote when you could not sleep?

The Curmudgeon said...

It's a wonderful, thoughtful post and I particularly liked how your friend's 9/11 story started with the routine and normal -- sitting down with her iced coffee. I wonder if she has had any since?

This line bugged me: "We could look into the past all we wanted, but it remained impenetrable." No, we can't go back -- but we aren't the same people anyway. We wouldn't have the same experience. But my 20-somethings are nightclubbing now, dating, experiencing college. And I remember so much -- good and bad -- watching them.

And thank you so much for stopping by my blog.

paris parfait said...

What an incredible journey! Beautiful writing. I just can't wait to read your book! xo

Anonymous said...

I love this. I love how this journey is as much about newly opening doors as it is locked ones.

MB said...

You are a weaver, transforming the gritty, oily strands of life's rough wool into a warm and comforting blanket for the soul.

Patry Francis said...

Rebekah: Hmmm...maybe a memoir? Thank you for envisioning something larger.

R: Almost forgot about that. I just remember them playing New York, New York every night at closing.

David: Thank you and welcome!

Becca: So happy to see you in the blogosphere again! Thank you--

Ivy: Thank you for sharing my excitement, my lurching heart.

Fred: I think you've just inspired another post, though I know I can never describe the gnocchi as well as you could...

Curmudgeon: You're right: we're not the people we once were, but I do believe we contain those people. Thanks for sharing your reflections.

Paris: THank you!

Sara: I hadn't thought of that, but of course you're right.

MB: Your words are a poem. Thanks for sharing them here.

Anonymous said...

I so enjoy your writing style. Your words reflect such honesty. I am inspired.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Coll. I recently read that people who try to make sense of their experiences by writing them down are happier than people who don't. I definitely felt that way after writing this. I wonder if you've often felt the same way?

Anonymous said...

Simply beautiful!