Reconnaissance by Maris Venia
Followed by Q&A
At One Time
When I visit my parents in southeast Michigan, where I grew up, I take Monroe Street from their home into town. I drive past homes and past businesses and over the river. Now I know that at some point during this drive I’m traveling over a small cemetery almost 200 years old. I try to imagine how many times I’ve taken this route, something impossible to calculate, and I’m amazed I didn’t know what was beneath the surface until now. The markers that once told the stories of those who were buried there deteriorated and as the settlement continued to grow the cemetery was forgotten. Only much later, years and years after a town was established and the road was made, did an historian realize what was underground.
I think of these layers, and I wonder how many layers and how many bodies are below the asphalt and soil; I wonder if they feel the vibrations of cars driving above them. I wonder if they are, in fact, still living things in some sense, still as much a part of our town as they were when they walked its streets.
Michigan is a state in two parts: the Upper Peninsula—the U.P.—and the Lower Peninsula, the one shaped like a mitten, the one that Michiganders refer to by holding up their right hand and pointing to areas on their palms, indicating their hometown, college town, or other landmarks. We carry this map with us; it is a part of us, a constant reminder of where we’re from. We point to particular lines, freckles or discolorations that happen to coincide with the locations of important places on actual maps. Hold out your right hand, palm facing you: my hometown is under the thumb, it’s the rounded bone that juts out just above the creases of the wrist. Touch it, and in some sense you know something of me.
The Lower Peninsula and the U.P. are connected by the Mackinac Bridge. Last summer I crossed it. Miles of bridge, miles of water, and the threat of winds so strong that small cars are wary and brave; they know others have been carried over the rails and into the lake below. I had been there before, as a child, but I didn’t remember the trip outside my parents’ stories, so in some ways I was seeing this land for the first time.
This land is a part of Michigan that is sometimes forgotten. A part of our history we’d sometimes like to forget. A land stripped of its resources, mined for its timber and minerals underground. It isn’t what once was, but still it survives and heals.
Large sky. Blue. Two layers of a few thick, white clouds: one high, the other so low I could see the curve leading to the top. So low I felt that if I could have jumped high enough, I could have reached it.
Tall grass and Queen Anne’s lace, golden rod, clusters of purple flowers in stalks, yellow dots, clover. So many evergreens and birch; rows of silver maples whispered something soft, something lush: I listened.
Barns were in the distance. Fields harvested, rows of hay wrapped into smooth cylindrical bales spotting the landscape: beached whales, tan on the green expanse. Sun and the curve of the road.
Before me, dark shimmers across the pavement evaporated and reappeared.
In the winter, on the northern shores of the U.P., Lake Superior is a vast frozen stretch with heavy fault lines splitting it like a puzzle. The earth is cold and still, but the lake is alive: giant blocks of ice float on the dark waters and shift with the currents underneath.
Off the coast of the Lower Peninsula, in the Grand Traverse Bay, is the site of something like a Stonehenge. An arrangement of rocks found with sonar equipment far beneath the surface of the water. The rocks look purposefully positioned and a section of ridges on one rock looks like the carving of an animal.
The story is that perhaps a people settled here after the ice age, after the glaciers did their slow work, scraping down from the Artic, through Canada, through Michigan and beyond, creating deep gouges in the earth’s surface, taking and depositing soil and debris and rocks along its path, destroying and creating everything. Over time, water filled these gouges, these meandering lines, these craters, and they became rivers, lakes. Much later, the five largest were named the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. But maybe, before the water, there were people first. Like those who are beneath the earth in my hometown, I wonder about these people. I wonder who they were, where they came from, how long they lived in that space. Where did they go next? I try to imagine them, a blurry image, and I feel some connection, though it’s faint at first. I have been in that bay, stood on its shores, perhaps even where their feet once stood, leaving impressions in the sand. Their lives have left a marker, physical proof that they existed, and because of this, they still exist, their mysteries radiating below the skin of the water. Genetics fade, but they are my ancestors, my neighbors separated by centuries.
A few months ago I drove north through the middle of Michigan, through the middle of the “mitten,” to stay with my boyfriend while he worked at a conference for his job. Earlier that day the sky had been clear and bright, the sun had been out, reflecting off the snow—blinding—but by late afternoon the world was gray and white and the road was stretched before me.
Further north, where the sky is wider, where the freeway ends. To where it feels—really feels—like Michigan: the snow is more and colder, the trees are taller, the life more rural and the lakes more prominent. The landscape is fluid and hilly.
Up there—Up North, we say—are forests and Indian reservations and land between towns. There is a college and a casino. Snow mobiling in the winter, golf in the summer, hunting in the fall amidst more leaves and more colors than it seems possible: a shock of reds and yellows, something soft, almost pink, bright orange, dark purple, and dots of green and brown. I try to imagine how the land looked before—way before—when it was completely untouched and the country was young or not at all. All I can see are trees.
Further west from where I was, the land is patterned with rows and rows of vines and leaves, and dark, dark grapes, curving toward the horizon, the roots sunk deep into the earth, down through its layers. Beyond the vineyards is one of the lighthouses that dot the shores of Michigan. I was there recently: I parked under the cool of tall trees and walked through the sand to the lighthouse where I climbed the steep stairs to the top. The tide was low. Inside the look-out tower, I stood where so many lighthouse keepers have stood. I could see what they saw: sand and then a stretch of damp sand and soil spotted with smooth rocks and grasses, and then the water, blue and lapping until it met the sky. I wondered at the silence that must have inhabited many of the nights they stood watch. There is little else for miles around and would have been less at the time when the lighthouse was functioning. I scanned the water for ships that were not there, that I knew were not there, but that used to be; I could see outlines in the distance. I imagined the darkness of this place at night, a lantern in hand; thought of the lighthouse keepers climbing those stairs to signal to ships that rocks, that shallow waters were nearby.
Within the list of men who kept this lighthouse, there is one woman. Originally from Massachusetts, she moved to the Detroit area, then to this lighthouse, and then, after she retired, to my hometown, where she lived and was buried. In the photo of her displayed at the lighthouse, I noticed her long ruffled dress and imagined her climbing those stairs with all those layers at her feet. I wondered where she’s buried back home and if I’ve walked past her before. I wished I could have talked to her: someone bold and ahead of her time; I wished I could have known her. But I realized that maybe I do: she’s been there all along.
On my drive back to my parents’ house, across the state, I passed exits and directions I used to take. Exits along the expressway leading to old haunts, old selves. The ghosts of who I was last year, two years, ten years ago still roam those streets, still move in those bars where the same music plays, the same fashions dominate. Somewhere I’m taking my first trip to Lake Michigan, with friends, and I’m pale as always and the wind is cooler than we’d like, but it’s the beach and the sand between our toes and warm enough for now. There are others: distinctions in the landscape that resonate for me, reminders of pain or joy, areas that feel palpable, though there’s no way to hold them, no way to capture them in any way anymore. They drift invisibly across this land, and what’s left is me, in this car, scanning the horizon, searching for histories.
In a town in the upper portion of the “thumb” of the state, are drawings done by early Native Americans. Carved in sandstone, graffiti marking an earlier time. I want to run my hand across the rough surface and feel the distance between the lines, between the lines and me. I haven’t been there yet, but I imagine the texture under my fingertips and think of the mystery of what’s beneath them.
Near the mouth of a river that flows through west Michigan, there’s a town underneath the sand. A lumbering town that prospered until the trees ran out and the mills closed and the people moved and the winds continued to blow in from Lake Michigan until the sands covered what was left: three mills, two hotels, several homes and general stores. Though once a busy place, a home for many, it’s possible to walk that shoreline today unaware of what’s below the surface, unaware of what existed.
I think of a photo: it’s of me and my grandfather, and he’s sitting on the edge of the sandbox in our backyard while I hold a bucket in front of me, my one and a half year old body settled into the sand. The 2x8s that make up the sandbox look new: the edges still level and the seams where the boards meet still tight—devoid of the weathering that will come with rain and Michigan winters and general use—and so I assume this is my first time in the box that he had built for me.
But the box rotted and was dismantled years ago, and several families have occupied that house since we lived there. I can still feel the sand, though, always cool to the touch—a result of the box being built under the maple in the back, those seed pod airplanes twirling past us as my sister and I played under it as kids, the light filtering through the leaves and branches above, casting soft highlights on our skin, on the sand. The particular smell of my grandfather, sweet and comforting, and the scratch of his stubble against my cheek. This is gone, too, but remains in some way, housed somewhere within me, a part of what makes me. Though there is no way to hold it and, aside from the photo, no way to prove it, this is what I have.
Today is the first day of spring—brisk but sunny and almost clear. Along the highway are farms and fields with yellowed stalks from last year’s harvest, but beneath is dirt darkened to a rich brown from the recent melting of snow and yesterday’s rainfall. The salt and sand have washed off the pavement, off the barns, and off the cars around me. There is sun and there is earth and there is me.
How We Got Here
It’s early and cold outside. I can feel my breath against my skin and the steam from my coffee is thick. I bring the mug to my lips and watch as a few college students walk past my apartment building. I’m sitting on the top step, far enough out of view that they don’t notice me as they look ahead with sleepy eyes, the shock of an early September chill against the heat that was August rendering them mute.
He was here recently. It was a seven-hour drive for him—two coffees, three phone calls and one tollbooth from Michigan to Iowa—and then it was four days of him here after a month apart when I moved away.
In high school we knew each other but not well. We had classes together but I don’t remember which ones. Old photos are evidence that we were involved in some of the same activities and I try to recall our conversations or moments we shared, but my memory has become selective and I rely on fragments and images instead: the outline of his undershirts beneath the thin material of his button-ups—the thick ridge of the hem and the smaller ridges across the back—walking behind him in the halls and wanting to run my hand across his shoulders, feeling that texture under my fingertips. The sound of his voice, deep, and the sound of his music: the rhythm of drum beats from the stage across the gymnasium. Some sort of energy between us. When he picked me up in his dad’s Mustang for prom: the tremble of his hands and the heat that exuded from the lapels of his jacket as we stood near each other at the front door of my parents’ house.
The cement of the step I’m sitting on isn’t warming underneath me and my coffee is cooling too quickly, so I reenter my building, the smell of the hallway hitting me as I walk in. The smell is that of a nursing home and it comes from the first floor apartment of my 101-year-old landlady, who has lived here her entire adult life. She and her husband raised their family in this building and one of their children raised his family in it too. Tenants have moved in and out and on, her children and grandchildren have grown, her husband passed away some years ago, and now her great grandchildren visit, the cadence of their chatter filling Sunday afternoons.
As I make my way to the stairs, I glance at her door and the blue label on it which says “& Neita C.,” her husband’s name removed after his death. I hear the volume of her TV emanate through her door and out into the entry. She watches television—or listens to it—from early in the morning through the evening as her hearing, her sight, and her mobility are all severely limited. I wonder what she thinks of. And with each day so similar to the next, I wonder what she waits for and if she’s lonely.
In my apartment I reheat my coffee and read while I wait for my phone to ring. During the years after high school, he and I communicated briefly, exchanging a few e-mails and attempting to meet up for drinks. It wasn’t until later, after college, both of us settled into jobs away from the town we grew up in and living an hour apart from each other, that we finally did. There was the anticipation of his visit as he made his way to my city, and then his arrival: standing in my doorway, radiating the same kind of heat, the same kind of nerves as years before, but as we stood facing each other, there was some shift in atoms, some shift in space, something altered and unseen.
Now that I’m here—two states away—distance is measured differently: by the span of sheets or by the land between us—miles of highway and pavement, the wide sky and the expanse of fields and farms undulating on either side of the expressway.
When he was here last, my image of him now: his shirt moving and pulling as he scrubbed and rinsed and reached for another plate to wash. I watched the movement of fabric across his upper arms, shoulders, and back as I dried. I touched my hand to his side and he moved so I could get into a drawer; I stepped back so he could reach more dishes to wash. There was music from my stereo behind us but we were silent, and I wasn’t searching for something to say, I wasn’t waiting for anything this time.
And after dinner, after dishes, after the evening hours slipped away, he sleeps on his stomach, and I on my side, though we’re entangled during portions of the night—his arm around me or mine around him or us face to face.
It begins with cicadas; in my mind, it all begins with cicadas. In my backyard, they are buzzing right now; I can hear them. These insects are rarely seen, but their sound is loud and constant, shrill and familiar, their notes an electric chant. When you sit outside in the late summer, in the early fall, you can hear them, a sound both calming and unsettling. Today I sit on my back deck and watch sunlight and shadows create patterns on the weathered wood. It is late August and an early fall is setting in. They are humming. It begins this way: these insects, this sound.
As a child, during the summer, my parents, sister, and I watched reruns from the ‘50s and ‘60s on evening TV. The backdoor in the family room was propped open, windows too, and the exhaust fan at the other end of the house was whirring, drawing humid air up and out of the house through the stifling attic as cooler night air trailed in from the screens. Outside, the rush and zoom of cars from our busy street, occasionally a siren, and crickets crickets crickets from our backyard. The drone of the fan, laughter from the black and white shows flashing on the screen, lightning bugs and Mom filing her nails.
During the day, the feel of bare feet on pavement heated by the sun. That shiver. The smell of air and sun and leaves. Plumes of dust brought up by semis barreling down our potholed two-lane road, stirring up the dirt and gravel along its sides. The solid feel of my camera as I take photos of sunsets in pinks and purples and orange, thick black lines of telephone wires crisscrossing the foregrounds. In the distance, the tall smoke stacks of the energy plant, and beyond them, the massive potbelly stove stacks of the nuclear plant. Searching for the big dipper at night; summer: every day like this.
At night I lay in bed in my darkened room, car lights illuminating the space at first fast and then slow as the headlights lengthened across the walls or jumped up and down as cars made their way over the railroad tracks a few houses down. At ten o’clock every night, the distant and then loud chug of train gears and the shrill and hollow whistle: long, short, short, long—long, short, short, long…
Days and weeks went on like this until sometime in August or September when the cicadas emerged. I never knew where they came from—I still don’t—but I understood that when they could be heard, something new would soon follow: a new year in school with harder equations and longer lists of vocab, a new fall and winter with weather brought in from the Great Lakes; there would be new shoes, a new haircut and new teachers. But there was something else there, too: a longing, a calling—I couldn’t quite put a finger on it—there was a stir within me when I heard them, a desire for something more. I heard them every August of my youth, I heard them when I was eighteen—just before I moved away to school—and when I was out of college, living at home for a few months; I heard them before I moved out of state, and the weekend I knew I was falling in love, and every August since. I hear them now and try hard to decode what they say, but it’s impossible to know any specifics, their language rhythmic nonsense. Instead I wait and try to prepare myself. On the deck, the cicadas buzz and hum around me.
Maris Venia is a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa where she earned an MFA. She lives, writes, and teaches in Michigan.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: “Reconnaissance” is an essay collection in progress that explores the small town in Michigan where I grew up, the history of the town, and my relationship with it. Time, layers, distance, place, and memory are important factors in the essays.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Drums, maybe...or a violin.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: I enjoy editing. I like the destructive first part, when I'm cutting paragraphs, moving paragraphs, and adding new ones. And then the tedious second part: sentences, words, commas. The process of reading, re-reading, and reading again. I find it really satisfying to take a mess and make it something smooth and cohesive.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on Reconnaissance, a collection of essays mostly about my hometown of Monroe, Michigan.