Ten years ago, not long before the Queen’s Jubilee, I boarded a train at King’s Cross Station for Edinburgh.
It wasn’t Platform 9 3/4, but it might as well have been. My life changed the moment that train pulled out of the brick archways and into the rolling green countryside beyond London–it was just beginning to be autumn then, and the trees were full of crows. I remember thinking about bird magic, auguries, every story I’d ever heard about England and Scotland. I was a tiny thing, a maiden in all but the technical sense. I knew, as the old novels say, nothing of the world. My EuroRail photo looked absurdly, hilariously, preposterously like an illustration of Snow White. I had a bacon sandwich. My mother was with me, a psychopomp in knock-off Prada sunglasses, bearing me across the wall and into the life I didn’t yet know I was in for. It was the first time I wanted something with that desperate, pure fire–and made it happen, by myself, with will and work. After all, if you grow up loving fairy tales and King Arthur and saints who battle monsters, you want the British Isles the way some kids want boyfriends. Edited to add: is that a silly reason to want to go to a country? Yep. Is it a direct outgrowth of the complicated relationship of American culture to British culture? Yep. Was I 21 years old, pretty silly, fully of inchoate dreamy nonsense and trying to learn how to be a real person? Absolutely. In fact, a big part of that growing up was going to a place I'd dreamed about and figuring out what reality there was like.
I lived there for something over a year. I came back to America for stupid reasons–but that’s what you do in your twenties. Make stupid decisions while meaning so earnestly well.
My interviewer in Finland asked me: you’ve written about everywhere you’ve lived but Edinburgh. Where is Scotland in your books?
I laughed a little, pressed my lips together as I always do when I’m thinking, looked out the window of our car at the swans nesting in the golden Nordic estuaries. This is what I told her:
A poetry professor once told me that you can never name the thing you’re writing about. If the poem is about death, you can’t say the word death. Poems about memory shouldn’t go on about the thing itself. If you’re writing about grief, you can’t actually say grief, or sadness, or even tears. If you want to talk about love, love is the one word you can’t use.
Edinburgh is the thing I am a poem about and do not name.
Today, not long before the Queen’s Jubilee, I boarded a train at King’s Cross Station for Edinburgh. It was Platform 7. It’s just beginning to be summer now, and the fields are full of chartreuse flowers. The old churches spring up out of them like strange, huge blossoms. The train rushes over a stream so full of swans the current is pure white.
I think about bird magic again. Auguries.
I am no longer small. I know something of the world. Maybe not much of a something, but something. I have made things with my hands and heart. I look a bit pugnacious in my passport photo, like I still have something to prove. I had a bacon sandwich. My husband is with me and this time I am bearing him across the wall, to show him this object that sits at the bottom of my mind, a grey stone city with a castle and a mountain, a place that was once wholly full of fairy fruit and temptation and the rich mess of becoming bigger, becoming grown. That fairy fruit made everywhere else look dimmer for awhile. My goblin city, that swallowed me whole. I think it took falling in love with Maine to fix me–before then I always had the idea that of course I’d go back, that somehow, somehow, this was where I’d live when I could choose.
I’ve been near tears most of the morning, riding north through sheep and cattle and chapels and flowers. When you love a place, it’s hard to leave, and harder still to come back. You hope it will be proud of you, of all you became when you left to seek your fortune. You hope it will be as you remembered; you hope you are still as it knew you.
You hope it will forgive you long neglect, lines in your once-clear face, a hard blue edge of cynicism.
O goblin city, I hope you will forgive me for never writing a book about you.