WITS Voices: On the Road Again
April 19, 2017
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
by Ann Teplick, WITS Writer-in-Residence
Oh, the hours I’ve spent behind the wheel of a Volkswagen bus, a Subaru, a Datsun, a Honda, from Seattle to Banff to San Francisco to Glacier National Park to D.C. to Montreal to Yellowstone to Austin to Philly.
Oh, the hours with the windows rolled down, with hair on the vertical, with music that blasts the asphalt of freeways and backroads, with Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again.” Oh, the bags of M&M’s, and coffee cups from 7-Eleven stacked like crows that caw their reminders to stick to the speed limit and not blow out the tires.
Oh, there is nothing like rounding the bend to find mountains that glitter their best selves into the blue-gray, plum, and buttercup sky of early morning.
Enter the students at Seattle Children’s Hospital. They arrive in the classroom by 10:00 a.m. It’s Wednesday, our poetry day, and this day, mostly middle schoolers take a seat around the table. After introducing ourselves, and sharing one thing we love about the world, I steer the conversation to road trips. Where have we been? To the Olympic Peninsula; Cannon Beach, Oregon; Taos, New Mexico; Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Where would we like to go? To SeaWorld; the Grand Canyon; the biggest candy store in the universe (wherever that may be); the tulip fields in Skagit County; Legoland, in Florida. Someone says they want to go to the land where there is no pain. We take a moment to reflect upon this, and nod in solidarity.
Enter the cars that will take us there. Okay, we decide to dream big. Maybe bigger than big. We are in the mood for exotic. As in Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Cobra. And with their true-to-life exterior colors. I look them up on my cell phone. Rosso Corsa (Ferrari); Arancio Argos (Lamborghini); Grigio Metallo (Maserati); and Guardsman Blue (Cobra). Fresh off the assembly line, of course. Shiny and bright. No need for fleece blankets, or pillows, or books, or tablets to make everything cozy inside. No need to play games, like Road Trip Bingo, or I Spy, or Twenty Questions. We take our seat behind the wheel. We rev up the engine, and away we go. We are on the road and in charge of ourselves.
Enter the word “drive.” The noun of it. We generate a list of synonyms, such as a Sunday drive, a commute, an outing, an excursion, a tour, an expedition. We consider the word’s verb, and generate another list, such as to advance, to move forward, to step on the gas, to tool, to peel rubber, to lay rubber, to put the pedal to the metal. Suddenly we are racing! We decelerate and take a breath. We consider the word “drive” as ambition, and generate yet another set of words, such as hope, hunger, appetite, passion, thirst, and striving. We talk about our drive to overcome our medical conditions, as well as the things that hamper us, like our shyness, or our tendency to be a nervous talker, or our state of worry which we equate to our personal state of the union.
Enter Raymond Carver’s poem “The Car,” our mentor text for the day. There is so much to love about this poem, and I have been a fan for years.
The car with a cracked windshield.
The car that threw a rod.
The car without brakes.
The car with a faulty U-joint.
The car with a hole in its radiator.
The car I picked peaches for.
The car with a cracked block.
The car with no reverse gear.
The car I traded for a bicycle.
The car with steering problems.
The car with generator trouble.
The car with no back seat.
The car with the torn front seat.
The car that burned oil.
The car with the rotten hoses.
The car that left the restaurant without paying.
The car with bald tires.
The car with no heater or defroster.
The car with its front end out of alignment.
The car the child threw up in.
The car I threw up in.
The car with the broken water pump.
The car whose timing gear was shot.
The car with the blown head-gasket.
The car I left on the side of the road.
The car that leaked carbon monoxide.
The car with the sticky carburetor.
The car that hit the dog and kept going.
The car with the hole in its muffler.
The car my daughter wrecked.
The car with the twice-rebuilt engine.
The car with the corroded battery cables.
The car bought with a bad check.
Car of my sleepless nights.
The car with a stuck thermostat.
The car whose engine caught fire.
The car with no headlights.
The car with a broken fan belt.
The car with wipers that wouldn’t work.
The car I gave away.
The car with transmission trouble.
The car I washed my hands of.
The car I struck with a hammer.
The car with payments that couldn’t be met.
The repossessed car.
The car whose clutch-pin broke.
The car waiting on the back lot.
Car of my dreams.
We hear the poem twice. Once, read by a student, and once, around the circle with each of us reading a line. We share what we notice about this poem. Someone says, it looks like a column. Someone else says, the lines are short. And of course, there is the repetition of the words “The car” at the beginning of (nearly) each line, which gives the poem its music. I ask if this repetition feels extreme, or just right, or maybe not enough. Most feel it’s a teeny bit on the long side. We speak about the narrative nature of the poem, and how volumes are spoken within the poem’s concision. We talk in length about the story—this beloved but broken-down car, and the driver that had bought the car with a bad check, and had once left a restaurant without paying, and had hit a dog and kept going. We become solemn, and hope that the dog is okay. Which circles us back to the topic of pain, physical and emotional, and the car of our dreams that might take us to a place where there is no pain. We share some of the things that comfort us when the going gets rough. Some say food, and some say sleep. Some say things soften when they are around close friends and family, and some, when they are left alone. We all say we feel better when we are listened to. I invite the writers to think about a personal object that comforts them. Maybe it’s a favorite pillow, or a favorite pair of slippers with soles made of memory foam. Maybe it’s the basketball our mother gave us, or the windchime our father gave us. Maybe it’s the photo of our grandparents getting married. I tell them about my love for the road. We warm up with a five-minute write of first thoughts, continuing thoughts, and associations regarding this object. Then, we craft our narrative poems, inspired by Raymond Carver’s “The Car.” Most of these poems focus on comfort. Though, a certain well-known book, and a certain well-known weather pattern in the Northwest, beg to differ.
The knitting needles that flash by.
The knitting needles that click and tap.
The knitting needles that create fabric.
The knitting needles covered in yarn.
The knitting needles made of wood.
The knitting needles that make mistakes.
The knitting needles with dents in them.
The knitting needles that comfort me.
THOSE ADVENTUROUS ONES
The shiny blue skis.
The ones that get thrown.
The ones that slice through ice.
The ones that hold a lot of weight.
The skis with boots attached.
The skis with power and speed.
The skis that break rules.
The skis that go off trail.
The skis that travel.
The skis that are cared for.
The skis only fit to fit me.
The thrill of life.
My happiness in life.
THE BOOK CALLED ENDER’S GAME
The book I didn’t finish.
The book I didn’t understand.
The book I read in the hospital.
The book I read in bed.
The book my Aunt Marcia gave me.
The stuffed animal named Ernie.
The stuffed animal shaped like a cat.
The stuffed animal falling apart.
The stuffed animal losing its fur.
The stuffed animal with the torn ear.
The stuffed animal loved by me.
The old broken cheer mat.
The tumbling mat with the broken spring.
The broken hand you get protecting your flyer.
The rush of adrenaline while waiting to go
on the mat to perform.
The anxious feeling when waiting to see who won.
The happy tears when winning.
The smile on the flyer’s face when they get the stunt right.
The countless hours practicing the routine.
The sad angry feeling when you have to leave.
The excitement when you return.
The rain that cancelled elementary school more than I can count.
The rain, whose fat cold raindrops sink through my jacket.
The rain I can smell approaching.
The rain that gives the fall leaves a sugary sweet smell.
The rain that is a constant for most of the year.
The rain that beats like drums on the roof at night.
The rain that my dog fears.
The rain I stood outside in for two hours, when I locked myself out.
The rain that makes all the plants a deep dark green.
The rain I miss anywhere else.
The rain that pours every time I go to the beach.
The rain that makes the ground slippery as a soapy floor.
The rain where puddles soak my pant legs and leave me shivering cold.
THE CEDAR TREE
The cedar tree with a crack through the middle.
The cedar tree, that when I swung on its branch, it broke.
The cedar tree that smelled like dew after a long hard rain.
The cedar tree that stood tall and strong through the chop of an ax.
The cedar tree that I protested to keep alive.
The cedar tree that I cried for, when a cold hard chop struck through the wood.
The cedar tree that I sat on when it was nothing but a stump.
The cedar tree that I wished could stand tall like a skyscraper towering over the city.
The cedar tree that decomposed to dirt to provide for others.
The baby trees that sprouted where a towering cedar had once been.
The towering cedar that gave its life for nature.
I think about nature and I am comforted. I think about the cedar trees in abundance in our region. And I’m behind the wheel, again, this time in a Hyundai, heading for mountain passes, tunnels, and farmlands on the other side, with coffee from 7-Eleven, and a bag of M&M’s in my lap. Singing “On the Road Again” with Willie Nelson, “Goin’ places that I’ve never been. Seein’ things that I may never see again.”
Ann Teplick is a poet, playwright, and prose writer with an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. For twenty years she’s been a Teaching Artist in Seattle public schools; Hugo House; Coyote Central; and Pongo Teen Writing, at King Co. juvenile detention and the Washington State psychiatric hospital.