Excerpted from Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape, a memoir forthcoming from Ice Cube Press in October 2016.
Sometimes it is like a dream. A sleepwalking. The way you move through your surroundings—through doorways, backyards, decades—one unconscious foot following the other. Perhaps for a moment you’re able to focus on a color or sound or even a face, yet before you can name it, it passes. Or perhaps, for the moment, you can’t even place yourself.
Now, for example. I am standing on my head atop a hillside somewhere in the Midwest, and I am not dreaming. What I am doing is trying to make an ocean out of this endless sky, trying to link this landscape with another I can at least recognize. My bare toes dangle into the froth of clouds and soon a pair of hawks floats by, belly-up, revealing white underwings. I dig my brow into the grass, searching for a better hold. What with the earth spinning at over a thousand miles per hour, both balance and bearings seem critical.
Most of us are thrust into this world headfirst and upside down. Most, quickly slapped into our first awareness. They tell me the doctor struck three times before I cried out, for which I was dubbed stubborn. Of course, I can’t remember the incident, but have always figured I was just a little slow to respond—caught squinting for the moment at the sudden light. Waiting for focus.
It took until grade school before a reading teacher recognized I was merely myopic. Each year a thicker pair of eyeglasses helped define the blackboard’s framed lessons, and by the end of high school contact lenses helped add some peripheries, but the truth is, the bigger picture kept escaping me. The truth is, some thirty years later I was still stumbling along with scant direction let alone a horizon in my life.
Late in the summer of 1991, I set out again from my native New York City, this time heading west. My plan was to attend graduate school, which seemed levelheaded enough since to date I’d been falling in and out of random jobs—in construction, a Montessori preschool, a stint in Italy teaching English, even a season with a one-ring circus—a virtual diploma’s worth of detours and detachments.
The trunk of my car once again wedged full, I pulled away from the Lexington Avenue curbside with a gulp in my throat. By the time I was midway through the Holland Tunnel, I’d started to hyperventilate, the dashboard swimming with doubt.
“Wait, where are you flitting to now? Iowa?! God, you must really be crazy this time. Turn around, turn back.”
Yet I didn’t. Couldn’t. No U-turns allowed.
Hundreds of miles passed before my vision cleared and I could focus on anything beyond the strip of asphalt ahead. First, full green trees appeared beyond the road’s shoulder, then a sign mentioning Ohio. I veered off the interstate and soon was steering the car toward more and more open land, sifting through small towns with names like Defiance and Peru. Night fell, and the odometer kept spinning. The windshield clouded over with mayflies, the radio drowning in static. As long as I kept moving though, everything was OK.
At some point I must’ve pulled over, exhausted, because the next thing I remember is waking up sprawled in the backseat. The sun was already up, the Illinois state line throbbing somewhere in the back of my head. The car windows open wide. The near field whispering, I swear, Lost. Lost. You’re lost.
I found some coffee and more gas, then pushed on. With each passing farmstead the horizon grew more rolling and manicured, the air thick and fertile with promise. Finally I crossed the Mississippi River at the very spot Joliet and Marquette first documented three hundred years earlier. On the other side of the bridge stood a shiny road sign reading “IOWA: A Place to Grow.”
I smiled, the first time in days. Maybe this wasn’t so far-fetched after all, I thought. Outside my window, row after row of cropland was whizzing by, strobe-like and hypnotic, lush. I took a deep breath and right there and then made a vow to live in the country. To really try to start a new life.
I spent my first week in Iowa City sleeping in the car, holding out for anything but another apartment. A public park curved alongside the river on the north edge of town with parking lots and barbecues, tree branches overhead—as yet the closest I’d ever come to camping. Each day I grabbed a fistful of quarters and telephoned real estate agents (again, these were pre-cellphone and pre-Craigslist days). I thumbed through all the local papers, scoured bulletin boards in laundromats. Surely, locating some country farmhouse to rent couldn’t be as hard as scoring an efficiency apartment in Manhattan. My trick in the past always lay in patience, in knowing how to wait. I’d long believed that all good things come to those who wait.
In Iowa, this didn’t seem to be working.
So I started driving the rural roads myself, knocking on doors. Folks were kind enough, but every last one stared at me slightly askance. Maybe it was my accent or my dark urban clothes. Or maybe just my ponytail. Whichever, clearly I was standing on their porches uninvited and unschooled in how things were done out here. What few leads I did receive all led back to my car.
Each nightfall I’d return to the city park, dusty and dejected. Happy couples strolled by arm in arm, some with small children nearby grasping ice cream cones or skipping toward the kiddie rides. I’d sit on a park bench and watch the spinning carousel until all the lights turned out, then crawl into my car and lay my head on the bare upholstery. One night I fell asleep outdoors, in the rocking arms of the Ferris wheel. On paper that may sound romantic, but trust me, it wasn’t. Sneaking morning shaves at a Sinclair gas station. Showering at the public pool. Driving halfway across the country to be homeless and alone. Pitiful, really. But goddamn it, if I’d come to the Midwest, I was going to live in the corn. I was going to grow, just like that sign said.
Finally, I spoke with a bank manager who said he knew of a homestead outside a nearby town called Lone Tree. I liked the sound of that, and drove the twenty-five miles (nearby?) to find a solitary, two-story farmhouse. Its surface was weathered gray, its window shades brittle and half drawn, and out back grew eighty standing acres of corn. Perfect, I thought, the very image. Who cared if it wasn’t available for another two months. I had my car and the city park, my choice of parking spots. I can wait, I told myself. I’m good at waiting.
As I drove back toward Iowa City, the surrounding fields literally shimmered. In my rearview mirror rose a long tail of gravel dust, like some smoke screen for all that lay behind me. I pulled over and climbed onto the car’s roof, trying to glimpse the end of the corn. My shadow stretched out onto the stalks, and I waved at my silhouette, standing just as tall and patient among them. Just as grounded.
That night, however, I kicked on the hazard lights in my sleep and woke up to a dead battery. The surrounding city park stretched empty and silent, save for a couple of crows mocking me from above. I paced and cursed and kicked at the gravel, then fetched a pair of pliers from the glove box and managed to loosen the battery terminals.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” asked the attendant at the Sinclair station.
I lifted the battery up onto his countertop and averted my eyes.
“No,” I said. “I just moved here.”
I was nearly out of breath from the walk.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m from New York.”
He shook his head and pulled the battery toward him. “New York City?”
“Yes,” I said. “New York City.”
“I could swear I’ve seen you somewhere”
“Look, can you charge this up or what?”
The walk back to the car felt even longer, the battery heavier, and by then, of course, it had started to rain. One of those flash summer storms, sudden and unforgiving. With each plodding step Lone Tree seemed an eternity away. I tried to picture myself hiding out for sixty more days in a city park, rolling over in my sleep, my taillights flashing through the night as bright as any marquee on Times Square. Who was I kidding?
Then, I got lucky.
West of Iowa City is a road they call Black Diamond. It bisects farmland between the Amana Colonies and Kalona’s Amish, and attends a creek they call Old Man. The creek, however, doesn’t entirely listen to the road and at one point branches off to the north. In the cradle of land between those waters lies a floodplain and several wooded ridges; rare acreage that somehow managed to elude both ax and plow. And on the crest of one of those ridges stood an old, one-room schoolhouse.
More or less, these were the directions I received from its landlady. Other roads intersected, with names like Half Moon and Hazelwood, but she didn’t mention them. Nor any addresses. Simply: Follow Black Diamond past the second creek crossing, turn right at the mailbox marked Redbird Farm, and bear left up the hill. Oh, and the gate might be closed if the drive is too muddy.
I followed those scribbled directions out from town where once again the horizon started to widen and roll, the roads growing thinner. Black Diamond lazily wound past old farmsteads of sheep and pigs, pasture and crop. Once the road straightened, I could see a small green bridge marking that second creek up ahead. Just beyond stood a mailbox stenciled with two little brown and white birds on a branch. I rechecked my directions—Redbird Farm?
I pulled off the road and parked before the chained gate. The drive beyond indeed looked wet and spongy. I hopped up onto the gate’s middle rung to better scan the area. Clumps of overgrown grasses flanked a small barn, and an old white house sat nestled among willows across the road, but no schoolhouse. I started climbing over the gate, but my pants leg caught on an exposed nail, and before I knew it I was flailing in midair, then ankle-deep in muck.
Normally, I would have laughed it off, yet gazing down at my mud-caked self, I started to question what I was really doing out here—not just looking for a schoolhouse, but coming to Iowa in the first place. What the hell was I thinking? Leaving Manhattan’s dizzying dazzle to stand out here in the middle of this mud heap? And for what, to study fiction writing? Come on, get real.
I trudged uphill, head down, doubt mounting with each mired footstep. My whole life slowly bubbled up for review. Every false or stalled start. All my veering detours and pit stops. Transition after transition after transition. Face it, there was no plan going on here. There was no plan whatsoever. It was all just one more muddy, muddled mess I’d have to dig myself out of again. Stumbling toward hindsight, I thought. Once again, stumbling toward hindsight.
Then, I noticed the drive beneath me was drying out, the ground leveling. I looked up, and there before me squatted a small, old-time schoolhouse—rising out of the hilltop, square and assured. A green ivy clung to its stone chimney, clapboard the color of worn work shoes, and from its footing flowed a staggering expanse of rolling pasture and woodland. And corn. Row after verdant row, clear and distinct. Miles and miles of perspective.
I felt my knees buckle. The ground beneath me was solid, though. My feet finally planted.