Excerpt: Lessons On Love And Landscape From The Heartland

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Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape
Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape

Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape concerns the search for where identity, place, and heart intersect. The memoir opens with its Brooklyn-born narrator standing on his head outside an old one-room schoolhouse amid 500 acres of remote woodlands in Iowa, his new home. Why this Walden-like retreat? Is it to attend the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or is he actually on the lam from love?

Structured like a schoolbook, each chapter is named after a school subject (i.e. Geography, History, Social Studies, What I Did On My Summer Vacation), which collectively forms an overall lesson plan for his coming back out of the woods. For the Heartland, it seems, won’t allow him to hide from his own heart forever. Schoolhouse is a study of both nature and of human nature.

Excerpt from Chapter One, “Preschool”

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 sometimes, it may just be a memory unblurring before you. A day in 1992 for example. Early autumn, as I recall: I am standing on my head atop a hillside somewhere in the midst of the Midwest, and I am not dreaming. What I am doing is trying to make an ocean out of the endless sky, trying to link this landscape with another I can at least recognize. My bare toes dangle into the froth of clouds below and soon a pair of hawks floats by, belly-up, revealing white underwings. A faint fluttering rises within my chest. The wingbeats of memory? A fading photograph? A woman’s name—Sybil.

I dig my brow into the grass for a better hold, but soon grow dizzy and drop my feet back to the ground. Thankfully my shadow is still there, slanting below. 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 stunned for the moment at the sudden light. Waiting for focus. For a clarity to sink in.

It took until grade school before a reading teacher recognized I was actually myopic. Each year a thicker pair of eyeglasses helped better frame the blackboard’s many lessons, and by the end of high school contact lenses added some peripheries, but the truth is the bigger picture kept escaping me. I remained shortsighted and slow to respond to what passed before me. Slow to get things said or done, playing catch up for much of my life.

Stumbling toward hindsight, I’ve come to call it.

And now, somehow the year is 2016 and the place Pittsburgh, wherein I find myself a fifty-five year-old man. I’m standing more upright this time, and have since had cataract surgery. I wake up to a world that’s strangely in focus each morning. I’m happily married near on twenty years, and together we’ve raised a bold and beautiful daughter who’ll be heading off to college any day now. And so, I also wake up most mornings feeling pretty lucky and thankful. Feeling quite distant from the younger man who used to live alone and so squinty-eyed on that remote Midwestern hillside.

So then, why bother returning? Why bother rehashing the past at all? Why revisit that particular place, that single year when everything in my little life turned upside down? If you were to visit that Iowa hilltop today, you’d find the ground similarly overgrown with wildflowers and weeds, but if you looked closer you might notice a slight dent underfoot, suggesting what was a foundation to a small square building. So part of my reason has to do with what once stood there and deserves due homage. And part resides with what has remained sunken somewhere in the middle of my chest ever since. Call it matters of the heart, or of the heartland, if you will.

I’ve come to think we all experience one love that stays with us, at least one impassioned relationship that, for better or worse, upends us. For me, mine just happened to be a May-December affair. When it started, I was barely twenty-one, and Sybil turning forty. Me, a babe in the woods of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, and she already married and separated, a mother of three boys the eldest of whom was merely three years younger than me. Ridiculous? Perhaps. Fabulous and deluded, fated to fail? For sure. And yet we went on together for ten years.

And decades later, while all those years are well in my rearview, some nights she still turns up in my dreams, wandering in unresolved. Clearly, something finally and fully needed to be addressed. Or better yet, redressed, for the way we both did and didn’t part ways.

So maybe instead of a recounting, let’s call what follows an accounting. An attempt to finally put an old throbbing to rest. A textbook of lessons I wish I’d already been schooled in at the time. A study guide for the incurable romantics among us all. Or, call it an elegy for a hilltop, an homage to what once was. A cautionary tale regarding what may or may not be sustainable in love and landscapes. What might still be turned aright. What should never go left unsaid, undone.

Excerpt from Chapter Two, Orientation

And so our affair began. Under the umbrella of movies, mushroom barley, and romance. We stumbled through that first summer, meeting up at museums and theaters, tentatively pawing at one another on park benches like teenagers. I lost my virginity one night in Central Park, on a hillside opposite the Alice in Wonderland statue, Sybil giggling in the faint glow of a streetlight. This is crazy, I thought. Surreal. Splendid.

Soon, though, September came knocking. Motivated by the growing chill outdoors, I found myself a tiny rent-stabilized apartment near the bottom of Lexington Avenue. Each Friday I’d buy Sybil a bouquet of flowers and pull out the arts section of the New York Times to select which new films or gallery openings or dance concerts to attend that weekend. Back then theatre tickets weren’t yet so prohibitive, and the fashions of Norma Kamali and Issey Miyake free to study in shopfront windows. Through Sybil I was discovering not only the big city’s avenues and art, but what true beauty could be, what felt alive and enduring. I was even catching glimpses of myself in her eyes. What I might have to offer a person, a culture.

Our first dizzying year passed like this, and then another. Sybil would stay over at my apartment one or two nights per week yet always leave come morning, and I never entered her Spanish Harlem home. None of this was ever spoken about, just understood. If the arrangement was odd, I didn’t know it. Again, this was the first relationship I’d ever had. In large part I followed her lead, tickled by whatever time and love we could share. We hardly socialized with anyone else, our rapport remaining more tryst-like and in the present moment. Freed from the banalities of bills and laundry, the complexities of future tense.

Deep down I was probably as confused as ever, but seemingly more confident, focused. I enrolled in NYU’s film school and managed to complete a BFA, but then promptly went back to another myopic string of odd jobs. Months and years were ticking by during which I checked off fleeting flirtations with construction work, bicycle messengering, theater box offices, two stints abroad in Italy teaching ESL, even a season with a one-ring circus—in all, a virtual diploma’s worth of detours and detachments.

The only real attachment I could claim, the sole vocation I’d been able to commit myself to and sustain whole-heartedly, was Sybil. Through it all, we remained an item, and I default to so generic and undefined a word because I don’t know precisely what else to call us. Loyal? Yes, yet you couldn’t say we were “going out,” let alone going forward. We weren’t boyfriend-girlfriend or budding fiancés, cuckolds or adulterers. Frankly there was and remains no socially recognized word for what we were. The closest construct at the time may have been an old gay couple—unable to live entirely together or apart. Coming and going, yet always coming back to each other. Mutual harbors, across town or across the ocean, for better and worse, for ten years and counting. Sybil, my prophetess and soothsayer. Part sylph and symphony. Music and muse. Hearth and island. Whatever you might choose to call her or us, to date, Sybil was surely the closest I’d ever come to a lodestar in my life.

And yet now I was taking off again, trying out yet another potential vocation. This time my plan was to attend graduate school, which seemed levelheaded enough. While filmmaking hadn’t necessarily agreed with me, writing did. I felt like I needed to pursue that passion. Maybe even move on to what was next for me.

So, come one humid morning in late summer, Sybil and I found ourselves standing opposite one another on a lower Lexington Avenue sidewalk. At the curbside sat my car, its trunk wedged full, my apartment upstairs sublet for now. She handed me my last bag, which I slid across the front seat. I turned back, noting her slender face flanked by one of the many pairs of dangling earrings I’d given her over the years. Sybil could pull off any sized earring.

“So,” she said, the both of us now empty-handed.

I could feel sweat running under my arms. See a similar drop pooling in the tiny dint between Sybil’s collarbones. I reached out and dampened it with my fingertip.

I glanced away at the passing traffic. At the courses of brick on the building across the street. At our feet, where a tiny yellow candy wrapper lay on the curb. Anywhere, but into her eyes.

“So,” I started, but it was all I too could muster.

We stood on for another moment or two, then reached out for our hug and kiss goodbye.

Was this what a decade together was all coming down to? Some scrap of litter on the sidewalk and an awkward embrace? How could I be leaving her at that curbside? How could I ever leave Sybil behind?

Still, I felt the jolt of the car slipping into gear below me. Saw the back of her dress receding in the rearview mirror. Midway through the Holland Tunnel I started to hyperventilate, the dashboard swimming.

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, not anymore. One of us had to take a step, even if that step was one of retreat. Even if neither of us could admit that’s what was happening.

Excerpted from Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape, available now via Ice Cube Press or anywhere you purchase good books.

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Marc Nieson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. His background includes children’s theatre, cattle chores, and a season with a one-ring circus. Excerpts from his memoir Schoolhouse have been noted by Best American Essays 2012, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and recently published in TriQuarterly, Lime Hawk and Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland. He’s been awarded a Raymond Carver Short Story award and recent fiction appears in Everywherestories: Short Fiction From A Small Planet (Press 53), Museum of Americana, and Tahoma Literary Review. His award-winning feature-length screenplays include Speed of Life, The Dream Catcher, and Bottomland. He serves on the faculty of Chatham University, and is fiction editor of The Fourth River. He’s at work on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs.

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