The Understory: my first few months in New England.

How to accept limited physical horizons and expanding creative ones.


The fridge: I’m seriously considering unplugging the fridge.

What can I say? It’s too loud. After twenty-five years spent in the Southwest, I crave silence. I miss those horizons as broad as the Pacific Ocean. I miss sticking my nose in the bark of a juniper tree in New Mexico and taking a big whiff of vanilla. I miss striding across the Ortiz Mountains with my two dogs roaming free through pinons, cacti, junipers and jackrabbits. Millions of acres all around, the sun overhead, and a dry desert heat that relaxes the muscles like a good massage: I miss my home. I miss sitting on the bench overlooking the Rio Grande valley with the ticking of a wrist watch and the distant paw prints the only sounds soothing me.

However, I’m in Vermont. A place of

Sugar maple, beech, birch, poplar, and many kinds of evergreens, wildflowers such as trillium, bunchberry, lily, paintbrush, violets, orchids, black-eyed Susans, asters, clover, mushrooms, ferns, balsam fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock, mountain ash, white birch, blueberry, lichen, dandelions,  poison sumac and poison ivy.

I’ve moved 2415 miles across country for a two-year MFA Writing and Publishing program. In New Mexico, I’d gone as far as I could as a writer on my own: Wide open landscapes and limited writing opportunities. Since coming to graduate school, my creative world has expanded in ways I’d barely dreamt of. My physical world though has shrunk like a badly fitting bra. Why does it have to be one or the other? Is it possible to create a life with such an expanse both creatively and physically? Truly be part of a literary world with room to fly in my mind and also on foot?

The Southwest is known both as the Land of Enchantment and Land of Entrapment. It takes you in or kicks you out. So they say. For me, New Mexico became a home. A place of firsts. First (and last) full-time job, it lasted a few months but hey, I tried. First girlfriend. First home of my own. First marriage. First divorce. First dog. First published book. You get the idea.

In New Mexico, when not writing at home, I took Harold and Rosie, my dogs, out in the beat-up old 4Runner I’d called Faith. We’d drive into the Jemez Mountains, Sangre de Christos, or head across Rio Grande valley, exploring dirt roads, back roads, empty roads. Apparently, that’s my happy place, in barren empty open land with a campfire, warm sleeping bag and a cup of tea. With no agenda, no deadlines, those roads took me places that few dare explore, not many people like to be too far from villages and people, too far comfort, theirs not mine that is. Out there, in the middle of nowhere/ everywhere, my sprawling imagination filled with stories and I strode free and at ease being alone in millions of acres of high desert and few people. Grass was bitter on my tongue and dandelions created a salad of fresh memories, as I discovered edible plants along rivers and in meadows. Incredible sunsets and sunrises thrilled me each day, as did watching storms build over distant mountains, smelling the snow coming in November. It was home to me.

I miss my home.

I’ve moved to a world that feeds me on creative and academic levels and starves me on others. I’m struggling here. Graduate school is demanding so much of me on all fronts. The question is this, can I make this work? And why does it lock me down so badly to see only trees and no horizons beyond a mile away? My work is with words yet I can’t find the words to explain this extreme reaction to such a constrained environment as Vermont. I remind myself daily:

I’m here to become a better writer.

To create a career and community.

I put the laptop away. It’s been another productive morning, coffee, walk dogs, and then another few chapters in the new novel, On her Feet. It had needed more tension, risks, conflict: I’d mistaken surprise for suspense. Yes, a productive morning. Pretty satisfying.

I pack Harold and Rosie, my two dogs, in the truck. It’s time to get out of town for a drive, find a meadow, trail, or pond where we can throw off the straight-jacket of small town life. Montpelier crowds in me with sounds of traffic on Hwy 14 a mile away, with the buzz of construction, conversations, electricity, and it’s like sticking my head in the rinse cycle in the washer in our damp basement, paying for the privelege, two dollars at a time.  Is this why my stories have turned dark and twisted, full of the unexpected? Is this what I have to do to write such absurd and strangely fantastical fiction? To confine the physical in order to release the imagination?

Sod it, time for a drive.

The Green Mountains, part of the Appalachian Mountain Chain, run north to south in Vermont for 160 miles with four peaks of over 4,000 feet,  a spine holding together for this dense state. The forest closes in, thick branches fold overhead to form a tunnel along this winding country road as we drive towards Lake Champlain. Rain beats down on this summer’s afternoon and the wipers slap side to side. The sound of wet tires on paved roads pokes at my patience, already as worn as my favorite shirt with ripped seams and not at its prettiest. The weather turns even darker or is it the bloody trees? The signs are hidden by thick heavy branches. Traffic backs up behind me, breaking at my NM plates to give me the Look, too polite to give me the finger. Rain thumps on the roof. The wipers swoosh over and over. I snap at Rosie for sitting on Harold’s tail. When I reach for them to apologise, they cringe and stare out the windows quietly. We come out of the forest finally and follow a few softly rounded hills the locals call mountains.

The horizon broadens out to a mile at most. Briefly. The landscape opens up across  fields of corn or grass, with hints of ponds flickering and reflecting in the distance. I pull over at what looks like a trailhead:


Fuck it. The dogs lean away from me. Cursing, I drive off, tension like body odor filling the Toyota relentlessly. We’re back in the woods:

Sugar maple, beech, birch, poplar, and many kinds of evergreens, wildflowers such as trillium, bunchberry, lily, paintbrush, violets, orchids, black-eyed Susans, asters, clover, mushrooms, ferns, balsam fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock, mountain ash, white birch, blueberry, lichen, dandelions, poison sumac and poison ivy.

Claustrophobia refers to a fear of closed spaces. What would be the opposite? A fear of open spaces? Or a liking of closed spaces? Or a liking of open spaces? The thesaurus offers manias, phobias, and philias. So would it be agoraphobia? Agoracomes from old Greek for open spaces, although it originally meant market places. Was it then more suitable for a fear of crowds and groups of people instead of open land? So then would a liking of open space be called agoraphilia? Nope, that apparently refers to being sexually aroused in public. Not quite what I’m looking for. Not exactly the turned on state that applies for me right now. It’s not that I’m a prude, more like a prune. Kinda shut down in that department to be honest, this isn’t a juicy time in my life.

Finally, I pull over at Mirror Pond not far from Montpelier. The rain has finally stopped. No one is around. The parking lot is empty. The signs proclaim: No camping, No dogs, and No swimming. The Fish and Game folks keep these beaches for fishing and boating and nothing else unless you’re lucky enough, rich enough, to own a camp on the waterfront. How many of us do? It doesn’t help that State Parks also have huge signs across their gates, no dogs permitted anywhere near the lakes. I’m not usually a violent woman but I could punch a snowman.

This is not a dog friendly place,Vermont.

Rosie is an Akita/ Lab mix, six years old, energetic, and tops fifty pounds. Harold is an older boy of sixty pounds, Husky/ Collie mutt, and a sensitive soul. Walking the dogs on leashes around Montpelier three times a day is no life for them, after having spent their lives on thousands of acres, free to roam at will. This is a challenge for them as much as it is for me. A marathon runner told to skip to the traffic lights and back would be just as unhappy as Harold and Rosie.

There’s a narrow dirt road to the right of Mirror Pond that few drive down so I let the dogs off leash and we explore. The trees loom overhead, they practically throw themselves into the pond to drown. Harold races to the water and drinks as Rosie slams her body into a warm wave, taking off, free finally, she grins back at me. I drop my shorts, slip off sandals and dive in next to her. Harold guards the beach and Rosie and I swim along the tree-lined pond. The sun peaks out from behind the ever present clouds. But then a ranger shows up and parks next to Harold.

The fun is over.

We drive off with a warning. Not the first. We’re getting a reputation as trouble-makers in this land of constraint.

Sugar maple, beech, birch, poplar, and many kinds of evergreens, wildflowers such as trillium, bunchberry, lily, paintbrush, violets, orchids, black-eyed Susans, asters, clover, mushrooms, ferns, balsam fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock, mountain ash, white birch, blueberry, lichen, dandelions, poison sumac and poison ivy.

Vermont: Six million acres of which 4.5 million are forested.

New Mexico: 77.6 million acres of which 16.7 acres are forested.

Just thinking about all that open space I know so well, have explored for decades, it makes me cry. I’m going fucking crazy here. We drive home through the Green Mountains.

Sugar maple, beech, birch, poplar, and many kinds of evergreens, wildflowers such as trillium, bunchberry, lily, paintbrush, violets, orchids, black-eyed Susans, asters, clover, mushrooms, ferns, balsam fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock, mountain ash, white birch, blueberry, lichen, dandelions, poison sumac and poison ivy.

 If I scream in the woods, does anyone care? Or can I bring my weed-wacker and chainsaw, happy with my mad Englishwoman kind of contained crazy, mowing down the whole bloody state, cackling and singing aloud?

Back home in town, I feed the pups and change into clean jeans and shirt. Even as hard as it is to be in a small city that’s not my home, I remind myself how I’d needed to broaden my world. In Vermont, or more importantly, at this graduate school, I am in a world of other writers and artists, it’s all we talk about. It’s all we do. I’m hungry for it. I’m ravenous. I fill my days with words instead of walks. Head down, glasses on, books out, time to play with words. Is it enough though?
The dogs have claimed the sofa. Harold is curled up tight. Rosie sprawls with belly up. I make a cup of tea. Time for a little research? Yeah, why not, I have time and so I pull out the laptop again.

Am I the only one who needs to name everything she experiences? What would the word or term be for this physical reaction to a limited horizon? It’s funny how hard it is to find a term for this need to be in the empty (barren) outdoors. Various forums, both etymological and psychological, offer a term that seems to fit: Kenomania. It comes from the Greek word of ceno(keno) meaning empty. A mania is a strong liking or a need. Together then kenomania tells of a strong desire to be in open empty places away from people.

Yep. That’s it.

It’s not helping though. I still can’t breathe. How do I stay sane enough to last for the whole two-year program?

Focus on writing.

Focus on learning.

Focus on finding a community.

Write. Every day. Write.


Knowing why I’m here in Vermont helps me, keeps me focused on getting as much as possible out of college and writing community but I’m still a bit of a mess. (Understatement.) I might shatter. I’m scared to stay buried alive in my body as my mind flies free.

I turn off the computer and stare out the window; trees and buildings surround my apartment building. Fuck.

Shaking off a desire to hide in bed, I grab my bag and notebook. There’s an event tonight at the college: Three visiting writers are reading from their work, two poets and a novelist, there will be wine and cheese, conversations and community.

After emptying and then unplugging the fridge, I stride up hill to the college to be around other writers. It’s enough for now.



Author: Sarah Leamy

Sarah Leamy is a freelance writer, a novelist, and cartoonist. She is a MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is on the editorial team at Upstreet, Hunger Mountain, and Wanderlust-Journal. She is currently writing a collection of short stories as well as a novel called Buzzed, Busted, and Broke. She has lived in England, Germany, Spain, Guatemala and the Southwest of the US. Sarah lives in Vermont.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.