“These are people who live close to God, their god, the river. They bathe in her, scoop her up in containers to make coffee, drink her down. They skin ptarmigan and watch her current run red, then clear. They rake her bottom with their shovels, feed her through a sluice, collect her finest, densest soil in their pans, bottle up and pocket her gold. Each turn of the shovel sounds like ehkä. Maybe. At night they warm their hands around a potbelly stove, tell her stories: “Remember last summer when Ami found a gold nugget bigger than his thumb? When Mullis shot a bear straight through the heart?” Only one man is “sentenced to life,” the term they use for those who stay through the winter, and when they visit his cabin they gaze at him over their steaming coffee mugs with respect and a little envy. They know that when the last birch leaves touch the ground they’ll drive south, spend five frozen months dreaming of the sound of running water, the lean into every morning, the maybe, the feeling that their insides once again have space.
When the ground thaws and the reindeer flock together to survive spring mosquitoes, they’ll return to the river with giant yellow excavators. Tear up her banks, trap her in pools, block her path with great mounds of her own rocky soil. It might seem as though they do not love her, these men who gouge and pocket her riches, but look at the way they close their eyes to feel the breeze off her current. Pay attention to the tenderness of their hands as they cup her soil. Watch them watch their children play in her shallows. Listen to the tremor in their voices when they say her name: Lemmenjoki. Sit with them as the midnight sun pretends to dip into Norway and then rises again, and hear them cry and talk about freedom. Tell me that’s not love.”
–Jenny O’Connell, Excerpt from “The Office of the Mayor of Miessi,” forthcoming from SLICE Magazine in September 2018
Fall is coming, the light tells me. Five years ago around this time, I was making preparations for an epic journey: the 110+ km walk in Petronella’s footsteps through the gold fields of Lapland. This year, I am preparing for a different kind of journey.
Last month, I was on my way to Maine with two dogs in the back seat and my friend Steph riding shotgun, when my phone rang. It was the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation, calling to tell me that I had been chosen as a Resident Artist. Studio space in Rockland, Maine that I must occupy from October till April. A $1,000 dollar stipend each month. I tried to keep it together for the short phone conversation (and failed–the Executive Director was laughing at my enthusiasm by the time we hung up), but all I could think was, This. This is it. Someone just handed me a book with my name on it. When I put down the phone Steph said, “Should we get out and jump for joy?” And there, in the parking lot of a gas station in Upstate New York, we did.
This book and I, we’ve turned a corner. A lot has happened in the last six months. I’ve placed pieces with SLICE and Creative Nonfiction, Camas, the Stonecoast Review. I felt guilty for a while, abandoning the book to focus on these shorter works, but it turns out writing is like walking. You cannot go any distance at all without putting one foot in front of the other. I was not just developing a writing resume, though it certainly helped. Through these pieces, I found my voice. I found my spine. I found the truth, simple, real; pulsing beneath my skin. This is all I have: to take pieces of memory, rub them together until they sing. Print them. Let them go.
Starting October 1st, I’ll be laying down my hustle. Cultivating the quiet, lengthy focus I’ve always known this book inside me would require. For six months, I will have the luxury to be obsessed. For six months, I will be just. a. writer.
By the time the residency ends on March 31st, 2019, I hope to have a finished first draft of Finding Petronella.
I am becoming the woman I’ve wanted: the one who is equal to this task.
You can find my publications here: https://jenniferaoconnell.com/writing/
Cathy and Bill