Flagstaff

I’m sitting at a desk in Flagstaff, Arizona. I can hear the noises of construction outside—the way a building can groan under repair, the sounds that only improvement elicits from aging walls. I like Flagstaff. The mountains, the chill in the air, the proximity to the Grand Canyon—these are all part of the allure. But what I love most about this town is the train station.

Along historic Rt. 66, three blocks from this desk, there’s a lovely and picturesque stop, giving space for both entrances and exits. Flagstaff grew around the station, the tracks cut through downtown smoothly, leaving the impression that this was never a final destination, until, of course, for many one day it was.

My server at lunch yesterday told me how much he’d fallen in love with the land. At least that’s the excuse, he’ll say as he laughs from the belly, for staying here so long. He’d come here for college, as many do, at Northern Arizona University, and decided to stay for fifteen years after finishing his degree. “It was going to be temporary,” he said, “but I guess I like it here more than anywhere else.” He stopped talking, as the train rattled by the outdoor seating area. “AND THERE’S ALWAYS THE TRAINS.” I nodded, noting how his baritone cut through the squeal of brakes on rail.

I get it. My choice to stay in Pittsburgh is similar. Graduate school instead of undergrad, but what’s the difference? I found a place different enough to keep me. I like it there more than anywhere else. There are trains in the Steel City too.  I lived above the train tracks for two years, on the shady side of Shadyside, and every few hours I felt their presence. The whistles and rumbles eventually sang me to sleep. For months after I moved out, I hated the silence of my new room, streaming a different type of train track through my headphones, trying to recreate the soft rocking of the midnight Amtrak.

I like the noises buildings can make.

Ah, the hammering outside has escalated. Just as I dream of catching up on old sleep.

The last time I was in Flagstaff, I was a different person. Or exactly the same. I can’t tell. It would have been November 2004, just near Thanksgiving. I came with my aunt and uncle to sight-see, but ended up running into a boy I knew.  The next morning, as he drove me at dawn back to the hotel where my family still slumbered, I marveled at the snow on the ground. I’d never touched it before, silly as it may seem. And I had no idea the winters that loomed in my horizon. That morning, though, I was in love with Flagstaff, with snow, with trains, with the knowledge that the night before meant nothing (a thought that brought me a warm smile back then), and figuring out how to explain my absence to my still-slumbering accountability.  Turned out, I hadn’t been missed, just passed silently through the night, even as I’d felt a rumble in my bones.

I wrote about this trip to Flagstaff. Brought it to workshop. Met the narrowing iris of judgment. “How can the narrator,” a woman had said, staring right at me, “be so indifferent about the whole endeavor?” I had never heard the word “endeavor” used to describe a one-night stand with an old friend. I laughed and pointed out that these things happen. What mattered here, I thought, were the trains—the way I’d been woken by one before dawn, shivering in a bed too far from my own, staring out the window of this boy’s house, looking at the mountain and feeling the slow churn of anxiety and engine alike.

In this exact workshop, I wrote a piece about my brother’s death. It had started from a prompt about looking at a photograph. I kept this essay close, constantly editing and cutting, adding and changing. Eventually it grew into a series of linked essays. My thoughts on death, and boys, and mothers, and pain, and guns, and secrets we keep—country and citizen a like. It became a memoir-in-essays, a nonfiction novella, a reportage in lyric. In two and half weeks, this little piece will have laid down tracks of its own, heading into a tunnel I don’t recognize. But I’m excited for the ride.

None of the people I used to know in Flagstaff back in 2004 are still here.  They’ve all gone on their own journeys. I’m back here, but it’s temporary. Flagstaff, for me, has always been a stopping point. A place to visit, to see a thing, and learn another. I’m in town this time for a poetry tournament. Mostly, I’m hugging the friends I see, loving the work I hear, and missing my husband and dogs. I’ve become more stationary, you see. I’ve embraced the terminal—made a home, planted a garden, hammered my own walls.

Yet even as I write that, I can imagine my husband shaking his head. I travel more than ever these days, but I keep promising myself it’s only a different version of staying still. The way physics keeps me sitting immobile, even as the carriage is shaking its way somewhere over the next hill.

I’ve got a plan these days. I can imagine a destination. And that’s better than it has been for a long, long time.

I’m due at the train station on Sunday. That’s where my shuttle picks me up to take me down to Phoenix, where I’ll get on an airplane and eventually end up on the little train at the Pittsburgh airport. That may be my favorite one of all. It’s the one I most encounter—the excitement of leaving for somewhere different, and the relief at seeing something so familiar as I try to get home.

Maybe that’s why I like Flagstaff so much. It makes me realize how much I love home.

And there’s always the trains.

 

Words, Words, Words—mere wind, sir

I’m actually, actually, finishing my book this summer. The book I’ve been writing and reading from for (gulp) five years now. 1)Whatever, plenty of books take more than five years.

Going through it has been an act of nostalgia (“I remember writing that!”) and an act in self-deprecation (“Oh, that’s so overwritten!”), but I’m learning that writing a book, a good book (I hope), takes patience, tenacity, and self-discipline—all of which I naturally lack.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my reading roots. How sad I am, for example, that the old, ugly McAllen library has been closed.

I only say ugly because the new library is so pretty. It’s won awards for its prettiness. My friend Carolyn wrote about it in the L.A. Times (for Jacket Copy, the book blog). She interviewed me about it, and then Gawker picked up the story, and now a few friends from high school have texted, wondering if the Adriana Ramirez mentioned in the piece is me. It is me. I’m not famous. I’m just a citizen and friend of journalists who pointed out the proximity between a building and the violent border.

But then again, I write about violence. Drug violence. Border violence. The violence of change and time. Like my book. The one I’m finally finishing.

George Bernard Shaw said it best in Dark Lady of the Sonnets, “Words, Words, Words—mere wind sir.” He’s making fun of Shakespeare when his character says the phrase, but I can’t help but imagine all the words I’ve typed and read in my lifetime fluttering around me, gaining speed, and funneling themselves into a cyclone. Wind can be violent too.

My parents would drop me off at the old library on Main street, and at my request they’d leave me there for hours lost in stacks, and always amazed that so much information could be contained within those walls. Of course, I’d read:  Many inappropriate things for a child, usually in the Adult Large Print section, but I learned a lot about myself, about culture, about desire and intrigue. I read all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books in 1996. I knew about sex from the Thorn Birds and about sexy machinations from Ken Follet. I typed, typed!, on the typewriters on the second floor all my applications for college, thinking my  handwriting too unprofessional for a first impression. Painstakingly tapping out  my personal statement, keystroke by keystroke, not wanting to make a mistake and have to start over or brave the  unsightliness of correction tape. I remember locking myself in study rooms and following IMDB trails for hours on the borrowed computers. And sure, it’s all there, but it’s in another building. The place I remember no longer exists. And years from now, the new library will just become “the library,” and the old one will fade into memory.

And while I can’t stop myself from being sentimental, I can certainly control how deep wade into the remembrances of the old building 2)just a little, I swear. I’m not going to lie, there’s something beautiful about an old library. Knowing that books have been there for well over fifty years 3)the old library was built in 1950, that some  librarians probably have too. The Main Street library taught me how to use reference books, how to look things up on microfiche, how to feel like a detective and a journalist before I ever knew what either of those professions really were. Community libraries serve as monuments to our pasts. And the buildings that house these monuments symbolize just as much. Architecture that has withstood change and circumstance can make knowledge feel  more permanent, and when you enter a building like that, one that bears the imprint of time as well as its books bear the imprints of obscure presses, one cannot prevent succumbing to acts of nostalgia and self-deprecation. We remember who we were, we remember our felt potential. And how we grew, moved on, and left the shells of our past behind us. Like that beautiful, old building. Even though it’s ugly next to the new.

If words are wind, then libraries are hurricanes.

References   [ + ]

1. Whatever, plenty of books take more than five years.
2. just a little, I swear
3. the old library was built in 1950