My great-grandparents were part of the flash flood of seasonal workers that surged south along the Atlantic seaboard in late fall and turned north again when the trees began flowering near Lake Erie. They were migrant fruit pickers wintering under the Florida sun, crouching in row after row of ripe strawberries.
I inherited something from my great-grandmother, something that waterfalled through three generations to pool inside of me. When you are bent over, she said, with your face to the earth, never look up to the end of the row. It was her strategy for avoiding despair when engaged in a Sisyphean task like folding your body in half and using both hands to pluck berry after red berry on a row that stretches to a far, flat terminus.
This wisdom helped my grandmother mend clothes during the depression. It comforted my mother as a school secretary managing reams of paper report cards. It instructed me as a copy editor fixing punctuation in a mind-numbing, spider-thumping directory of philanthropy. I changed commas to semi-colons day after office-park day. I did not look up.
Now that I am in full flower on our family tree, my work is writing novels and teaching writing, jobs I have because of privilege and luck and my great-grandmother. Writing is the ground I return to every day, an uneven piece of soil where I plant seeds and pray to ward off insects and dust. Each morning, I pull back the leafy canopy to look for some order and sense in being alive and usually find half-formed ideas, unripe and white as a frog’s belly. The disorienting confusion I wrestle with is this: Now that I am a writer, I look up.
I’m always stretching my back, gazing over the landscape, squinting at the uninterrupted sun and the miles of serrated leaves, draft after draft waiting to be weeded. I look at the rusty truck with the berry baskets, the dirt road that leads to the true road that leads to the highway. In my mind I’m on the highway. I eat the fruit I’m supposed to be picking. I roll around in the berry field. That is why my novel will never be finished.
Many of us have tasks with years-long timelines and few discernable borders. At least novels, if they are ever finished and published, have hardback covers to give them edges. In this way, a story becomes a product, and I try to approach my product-making through the steady, focused repetition that my family taught me.
But it doesn’t work. The results lack freshness and modern stories, like marketable fruit, must be fresh.
Here is the reason we try not to look up, the thing we’re afraid to see. Row after row that will not be harvested today or this week or before the climate drives us north. Work that leads to more work. Days that turn into lives. The end of life that waits at the end of work, Death with his scythe at the end of the row. Futility. Despair.
But I can’t write anything good while keeping my eyes from despair.
Besides the novel writing, I keep journals. Garage-clogging numbers of journals. In them I’ve noticed a theme stretching back years. Every few months I write about strawberries. Usually I write about being a child in the ’70s and stretching out on my belly in the wormy garden to peer under dark, green leaves, edges like the softest knife. I remember watching the fruit daily, waiting for their cream bodies to go pink as cereal milk, then red as muscle before I would reach in, pinching the stem with my finger and thumbnail and twisting like my mother taught me. I think it was my first experience of wonder.
My great-grandmother grew up in the farmland of rural Ohio, meaning she was a girl in a grass-stained dress peeking under berry leaves, fingering pea vines, and peeling husks from secretive, golden cobs. By the time she stepped into Florida’s fields, she had spent her life among seeds and blooms. Did she make a bolder discovery there than I had thought? If she kept her eyes down while picking, trained them on the mystery lurking below each enigmatic leaf, did she unearth a method of maintaining wonder? As the hot sun baked wrinkles into her skin and the sweat collected in the cuffs of her shirt, did she find a way to thrill at each red heart revealing itself in the dirt?
Maybe the lesson was never about avoiding despair. Instead of Never look up, could she have been asking, why look up when every marvel is ripening just below your knees?