Published recently, Margie L. Haack’s The Exact Place is a memoir that meditates on the relationship between place and spiritual awakening. The following excerpt is from the introduction of this superb book.
My mother, who was witness to much of this book, read an early draft. I waited anxiously for her to be finished, trying not to hover, and felt tremendous relief when she gave a positive response saying she laughed and cried, and thought it was very good. But, there was a “but.” There was one thing she disagreed with and I stiffened waiting, reminding myself that after all, memoir is personal narrative from a particular person’s point of view, which is obviously not omniscient. I tell my stories, not the stories of other family members. Referring to the details of a particular event Mom said, “The military jets that flew over our farm came from the south, not the north.” I replied, “That’s IT? They came from the south? From the south?” I fell back into the chair laughing. I will stick with my version. At the time, Randy and I were outside picking beans, she was inside canning. They came from the North.
One day as I listened to Terry Gross interview a memoirist on NPR’s Fresh Air, the author made an interesting remark: she said a writer should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I knew I couldn’t agree. If I couldn’t make a good story of what actually happened as I remembered it, then I shouldn’t be writing. Although it is tempting, I avoid fictionalizing for the sake of cleverness, a humorous moment, or satisfying closure.
In the end, confronting possible disparity between what we each remembered about the years we lived in the shotgun house was a valuable process. I was encouraged and amused to hear that when Frank McCourt’s brother read his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Angela’s Ashes and announced, “That’s not how it happened,” McCourt’s response was: “Then write your own damned memoir.”
So, these are stories of personal landscapes and spiritual geography. Kathleen Norris describes “spiritual geography” as “the way a place shapes people’s attitudes, beliefs, and myths.” She writes that “the spiritual geography of the Plains is complex. But the stark beauty of the land—its strength—also inspires strength in people, in part because it reminds us of human limits.” There was a stark, even frightening beauty to the land just north of the Plains where I grew up; it was a constant reminder of the paradox of human strength and its inherent limits. These are stories about place and family, and are firmly rooted in the stark beauty of the northern Minnesota landscape. The people, the animals, and the physical nature of the land shaped my personal landscape. No matter how far I move from them, I cannot shed them. Nor do I want to. They are powerful reminders of both the strengths and the limits of human love, they have become part of the history of my spiritual geography.
We lived on a small farm in the northernmost part of Minnesota, a place barely reclaimed from the wilderness. A winter blizzard could swallow a herd of cattle. Temperatures that fell below minus forty could freeze a chicken house full of hens. Summer rains could drown fields of hay and in minutes a hailstorm could flatten acres of grain. You never knew. Farming was the practice of faith, the hope was that waves of blue flax blooming in June would be golden-brown seed-pods in September, that the wet new-born calf would survive to replace her mother giving gallons of high-fat milk every day, that the hours of spreading manure and plowing straight lines would become your children’s and grandchildren’s inheritance.
It was remote—remote enough to not have telephone service down our road until 1962, the year before Kennedy was assassinated. Polio was still killing and crippling people in our county; one of our neighbors, a young mother, felt so ill one day, she drove herself to the doctor with her children in the backseat. None of us went to the doctor for something as minor as an ear infection or the Asian influenza. It had to be major, like when Paul Olsen amputated his finger. That day my stepfather and Paul were lassoing calves to brand, dehorn and castrate as my brother, Randy, and I sat on the rail fence watching. When a particularly large calf hit the end of Paul’s rope and flipped in the air, his finger was accidentally caught in the coils that unreeled faster than our eye could see. The force of the calf hitting the rope’s limit was enough to take the finger off. Dad rushed him to the doctor with the finger wrapped in a dirty handkerchief.
So, by the time Charlotte drove eighteen miles to the clinic in Baudette, she couldn’t get out of the car because she could no longer walk and never did again.
We didn’t have money for pretty furniture and fancy clothes—or even the plain kind. But we always had food, plenty of the sort that is still lodged in my genes; I can’t seem to repress mashed potatoes and fried chicken, even though I can make Thai chicken in lettuce wraps. We were always entertained by life, and even survived to tell about it. Entertainment wasn’t just contents of firing rifles at highway signs or climbing the highest tree on the farm—Randy won by climbing so high the swaying tip broke off, and by strange providence, I saved his life by grabbing his shirt as he bounced past—entertainment was also neighbors, who were endlessly amusing. Some must have had personality disorders. I’m sure they though the same of us.
It was this place and these people who shaped me. But perhaps my greatest shape-maker was the one Yeats had in mind when he wrote:
But love has pitched her mansion in
the place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.
Many times I have considered my life and complained how contrary it is to what I want or think I need, only to find, in the end, that although I’ve been rent, I’ve also been loved. No matter how far into the wilderness we wander—no matter how powerful the stench—it will be a place where God can touch us. So I follow his trace through this book, not in chronological years, but in themes and stories that wove through my childhood. And I see I was in the exact place I needed to be.
To purchase this title from Kalos Press, Click Here.
Also, to read the Hearts and Minds Bookstore review of The Exact Place, Click Here.