Liana and I decided to try a collaborative literary experiment: choose a topic that we would both explore from our different vantage points in Detroit. Although we only live a couple blocks apart, we seem at times to be confronting entirely cities, communities, and cultures—and certainly from different sets of experiences. To further explore these differences, we chose to open our experiment by writing about gardening. If you’d like to participate, we’d love to read links to your thoughts, too.
The largest town nearest to where I am right now is Mynämäki, Finland, which you have certainly never heard of, but which is maybe 30km away from Turku, Finland, which you are slightly more likely to have heard of, but, let’s be honest, still probably haven’t. I am at an artist’s residency program that sits on the former grounds of Saari Manor. It is named for the days when this place was an island surrounded by the Baltic seabed—saari means island—although those days ended over a thousand years ago, when the water receded and the land emerged.
Every city has ghosts, but some have more than others. Detroit is one of those places. When you have a city with such an incredible and tragic past still reeling from issues and challenges that impact a vulnerable population, spirits will linger. The truth is that in order to really appreciate and understand Detroit, you need to go looking for them. They're not hard to find here - every building, park, street and community has a story to tell that goes beyond the surface. If you care enough to listen, the ghosts reveal themselves. Sometimes, they find you instead of the other way around. This is what happened to me on a recent Saturday morning.
Someone (OK, it was me) has fed my cat Bengali food and now, when he smells it cooking, he meows out the window toward the neighbor’s house, running to me if I move or change positions or even glance up from my desk. Anne, someone is cooking my lunch! is what he believes he is communicating. We’d better go see if it is ready, together, here let me get the door!
I now do most of my writing from an upstairs room that overlooks most of my street. The room is stark, with freshly painted white walls (Thanks Write A House crew), a wooden desk and an aluminum folding chair. I've kept it bare to minimize distraction and maximize output. I am easily distracted. I lose focus. I am not one of those writers who can write comfortably anywhere, at any time. To get a place of pure, magical focus and creativity, I have to expend so much energy. But even a minimally decorated, quiet room has not stopped my mind from wandering elsewhere.
The sound of the lawnmower ripping through my street Saturday morning was a sign: winter was officially over in Detroit and people - actual humans - were outside. It was a shocking contrast to my first few weeks in Detroit, when I went days without seeing any neighbors or strangers as I walked around in the snow, trying to get a sense of my new surroundings. My lawn was also in dire need of a cut.
My computer desktop image is of an old stone foundation overtaken by greenery, a former homestead of Washington Irving, which I hiked to a number of summers ago during a residency in the Catskills. The spot wasn’t terribly well marked, and I had to dig for it a bit, so I spent most of the morning seeking out what would have been a former house, next to a stream, before chancing upon the rock Rip Van Winkle was said to have napped on. (Superstitiously, I did not indulge the urge to test it.) The discovery of the homestead felt somehow pivotal, and I knew when I snapped the image on my cameraphone that I would want to look at it every day: flat stone foundations are so sensical, aren’t they?
Write A House, the Detroit nonprofit that awards homes to writers, hosts a conversation between Frances Stroh and Kelly Luce at the Palo Alto Shinola store on May 19 at 7 PM. The event is free and drinks and snacks will be served. Please email RSVP_PA@Shinola.com to attend.
Write A House will visit the Shinola San Francisco store on Tuesday, May 17 at 7 PM to host a conversation between Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and Kim-Mai Cutler, a technology journalist and columnist at TechCrunch. The event is free and open to the public but please RSVP by emailing RSVP_SF@Shinola.com to attend. Drinks and snacks will be served! Help spread the word on facebook too!