NDJ:7 Deirdre Callanan

Dual Treasures

A Trunk and a Writing Group

The following is adapted from Deirdre Callanan’s Windows & Mirrors: Writing’s Power of Illumination & Reflection. The manuscript evolved from her year as the Christa McAuliffe Fellow for Massachusetts.

December. Jack and I visit my parents in Nokomis, Florida. I offer to clean the garage–a present which is also a present to Jack. Except for spiders plump as pelicans sprinting from behind congealed bags of palm fertilizer, Jack loves this task, the business of sorting, discarding, arranging, improving the use of space.

While he dismembers shelving, from a sand chair placed thoughtfully just outside the open garage door, I conduct my particular purging. A poem draft rests on a folder. I’m sorting stanzas, discarding unnecessary words, arranging line breaks, improving the page’s visual space.

I may not be helping Jack per se, but I have at the ready a Springfield rifle with a 6-x scope in case the snake he’s flushed from beneath the MGTD slithers his way.

A thud then a scraping. I continue revising. “Can you give me a hand with this?” I turn: Jack holds one leather handle of the old trunk.

“The steamer trunk!” Patient, Jack waits for my wave of euphoric nostalgia to pass. I step delicately across a dust pile, grip the other handle. “It’s heavy!” Perspiration gleams on Jack’s brow and shoulders. My husband– I pause to admire his self-cooling system. “Where should we put it?”

“Let’s get it out of here.” We lower the trunk, my childhood DOPP kit, beside my chair. Jack returns to the arachnid wars. I study the trunk: even its outer surface stirs memories. Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, S.S. United States, the America, Queen Elizabeth II. Our annual passages framed mild weather. I recognized spring when my mother judged the Atlantic calm enough for travel. Now, when I pick up a pen or turn on my computer, I’m beginning or continuing a journey. Then, leaving home meant the pier, a sudden whistle blast, that first jolt as the ship was nudged from the dock into the Hudson’s current. Now, there are folders and files. Then, this trunk, hat boxes, and my leather satchel which I liked to carry myself into our stateroom.

I unlatch it, its lock already down, a key lost forever, as vanished as those childhood crossings. I heave it open, unsnap the top compartment, fold its lid up into the trunk’s. A lace mantilla: Mass at Duchesne, Paige and I pausing, genuflecting, rising to the clack of Mother Mary de Chantal’s clicker. A bag of stiffened leather gloves: the black ones my mother wore to her mother’s funeral. A lavender Villager sweater: I’m peeking through the drapes, listening for the rumble of Murdoch’s Fiat.

I lift out the compartment, set it on top of my poem. A gecko hop-scotches to safety beneath the anonidia. I lean into the trunk’s deep heart. Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates nestles between my father’s English wax jacket, my mother’s Jaeger shawl. One by one, I spread the musty garments along the path. Every piece shelters a story. I touch a little longer the ones I know.

Then the trunk is empty, and I see it has no floor. There’s nothing there but grass and a ladder. Blue-pink light brushes its rungs, a light like dawn or dusk, like every beginning or ending I’ve ever written. So I step on into the trunk, wander around, listen to this, pick up that, until Jack touches my arm and we go inside for tea.

Every writer possesses a steamer trunk. When we write, we draw from contents packed with our particular treasures, acquired on spectacular journeys, richer than dreams can fathom.

Writing is a mirror activity. Alone, I look into my eyes. However fanciful or rich with experience my view may be, it is still my vision, a reflection of me.

A writing group is a window activity. Others look at my work. Because of what they notice, through their remarks, I see my work anew. Occasionally, they echo what I understand: the window reflects the mirror. Once in a while, they misapprehend my intent: light distorted, no valid image appears. Mostly, they illuminate, through their long-distance lens, things I had only partly seen, so close to the piece was I.

After tea, I retrieve the draft, continue work on the poem. Later, I begin a piece about celebrating my twelfth birthday in the mid-Atlantic. I write alone. I must. It is the condition of this art.

I don’t need to think about revision alone. For that, I rely on our writing group. Time and again, it helps me hone my craft.