This prompt addresses POV: the way a character sees life. To get the writers in the room thinking about this, I asked them to think about being in someone else’s head, seeing life through his or her eyes. For fiction writers, this could be a character you’re working with or wanting to work with, for non-fiction writers, it could be a person in your life you often think about.
I used Jane Kenyon’s poem, “At the IGA: Franklin, New Hampshire” as the prompt. As with all my prompts, I encouraged everyone to write whatever came to mind. But with poems as prompts, I often encourage the writers in the room to use a line or a passage from the poem as the prompt if they feel stuck.
The part of the poem that really got me was that thin woman with lots of rings observing the family.
Here’s Kenyon’s poem, followed by what I wrote.
At the IGA: Franklin, New Hampshire
by Jane Kenyon
This is where I would shop
if my husband worked felling trees
for the mill, hurting himself badly
from time to time; where I would bring
my three kids; where I would push
one basket and pull another
because the boxes of diapers and cereal
and gallon milk jugs take so much room.
I would already have put the clothes
in the two largest washers next door
at the Norge Laundry Village. Done shopping,
I’d pile the wet wash in trash bags
and take it home to dry on the line.
And I would think, hanging out the baby’s
shirts and sleepers, and cranking the pulley
away from me, how it would be
to change lives with someone,
like the woman who came after us
in the checkout, thin, with lots of rings
on her hands, who looked us over openly.
Things would have been different
if I hadn’t let Bob climb on top of me
for ninety seconds in 1979.
It was raining lightly in the state park
and so we were alone. The charcoal fire
hissed as the first drops fell….
In ninety seconds we made this life—
a trailer on a windy hill, dangerous jobs
in the woods or night work at the packing plant;
Roy, Kimberly, Bobby; too much in the hamper,
never enough in the bank.
I spend more time than I should, really, feeling my life is too small. The larger, wiser part of me knows that the three rooms and the sun-filled bathroom I inhabit are a kind of sanctuary. The tidy open square of my kitchen with new appliances is enough; my apartment building near the base of a large hill is quiet in a way most city dwellers know little about. I’m lucky to have a yard, green views out the windows, a safe place to park my safe car. And just a ten minute walk down the street, there’s a grocery store filled with some of the best food in the world on clean shelves, lit by full-spectrum lights.
Still, I sometimes mourn the life I don’t have and—I want to avoid the words now, but here they come—the life I may never have. A home full of warm bodies—a real house with a real garden and a real dog (maybe two, so they can keep each other company). I even want chickens, so I can have fresh eggs.
It’s not as bourgeois as it sounds. I’ve tasted it. There was that weekend my flight to Germany was detoured and I spent three nights in LA with a close friend and her family—a husband, a son and a daughter, a dog named Zoe. I loved being in the fullness of their lives: the overstocked refrigerator, the shelves bulging with food, the non-stop laundry, the dryer ticking in a room off the kitchen. The lively chatter at the dinner table, the promise of dessert, or the threat of getting none if some proper food wasn’t ingested first.
During Thanksgiving weekend, I loved cooking for my nephews on Friday morning: eggs, bacon, pancakes. I even liked the football games on TV, sitting with my older nephew on the couch, the dog thumping her tail at my feet.
I know how lucky I am. One recent Saturday evening I had coffee at a friend’s house with her very active 18 month-old daughter. We stood in her cluttered kitchen together as she prepared dinner for her daughter at 5:15. She spoke about a 7:00 bedtime for the baby, 9:00 for herself. I left her house at 6:00 with a night of dancing ahead of me; a close friend promised martinis and we were going to dance to a familiar, beloved deejay.
I know how free I am. I do. But I still long for the fullness only a house filled with people you love can offer. I want to stop establishing a garden and simply have one: white clematis covering the fence, a level patio space, bright cushions for the chairs and love seat, firewood for the chimnea.
“I’m always amazed at how clean your refrigerator is,” a friend recently said, and I told her it’s easy to wipe down a refrigerator when it’s nearly empty. Cooking for one? I resent it, actually.
Would I have been able to see Kylie Minogue last Saturday night if I were a parent? My friends who are parents tell me no. They envy my freedom. But sometimes, I really don’t want it anymore. Instead, I want the sticky, messy commotion of a family.
I came pretty close once. My yoga mat still has teeth marks from the bad dog I lived with part-time; my Ex lived in chaos and it often stressed me out. Still, I miss them both. I ran into that dog recently. She was with a dog walker. She and I had a joyous reunion right there on the dirty sidewalk. As he pulled her away, she looked back at me, her face filled with longing, and right there in public, on a Friday afternoon, I cried.