“. . . The places where water comes together
(from “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”
by Raymond Carver)
I visited Raymond Carver’s grave in 2005. Hard to believe that four years have passed since I sat on the bench beside his granite marker, high on a hill in Port Angeles, Washington above the Strait of San Juan de Fuco which connects the Pacific Ocean with Puget Sound.
That particular trip west had been for a family event, the wedding of a beloved nephew who has settled down in Tacoma. Following the wedding festivities, my husband and I spent a week vacationing. We explored Seattle, ferried across Puget Sound from port to port, toured Olympia National Park, fell in love with the town of Edmonds and wished we could live there for a while, and made a pilgrimage to Port Angeles simply because I wanted to pay my respects to Ray Carver, whose writing about blue collar life and his own struggle to be a writer so inspired me.
I discovered Carver’s work while taking writing classes at the University of Pittsburgh. In an introduction to fiction course we’d read Carver’s “Cathedral.” I soon bought all of Carver’s books, read and reread his stories, and loved his later work the best: “A Small, Good Thing” and “Boxes” and, of course, “Cathedral” are among my favorites. I read his poetry and found it to be beautiful and accessible. Poetry can be very intimidating on the page, but Ray’s pulled me into the language and the imagery, in the way that the poetry of Jane Kenyon, Maggie Anderson, and Irene McKinney also pulls me in – with directness and immediacy.
I found my way into an intermediate fiction workshop at Pitt which was taught by Chuck Kinder, a friend and contemporary of Ray, Toby Wolff, Richard Ford, and others of that group of writers. There’s a Zen saying that goes something like this: when the student is ready, the teacher will be presented. Now, Chuck is probably the most un-Zenlike person you’d ever meet, and I’m sure if he were ever accused of such, he’d immediately make up some hilariously self-deprecating title for himself as a hillbilly Zen Master. But the truth is that Chuck was the right teacher at the right time for me. I felt a kinship to this native West Virginian who allowed a middle-aged fledgling writer into a very full class and made her feel she had stories worth telling. It was clear while sitting in his class how much he admires and respects Carver’s writing, and that he misses his old pal. Chuck has since become the Director of the Writing Program at Pitt, and still teaches students who are lucky enough to get into one of his workshops. He also closes the gap in the standard six degrees of separation between me and Carver.
I spent an afternoon writing at Ray’s grave back in August of 2005. Kevin and I found the cemetery, and I then sent him off to photograph for a few hours while I wrote. At graveside, there was a small black box by the leg of the bench, and when I opened it I found a journal where visitors had left messages. When I turned to the first blank page, I saw that the last entry had been made the previous afternoon by Ray’s widow, poet Tess Gallagher.
(click images to enlarge)
I was still writing in my notebook when Kevin returned. It had been peaceful there in the cemetery – a quiet place to think and write, the silence broken only by the music of wind chimes on the gravestone. We took some photographs of the granite marker, which is engraved with two of Carver’s poems. Then we went into downtown Port Angeles, which happened to be hosting the annual meeting of the Northwest tribes that week. We watched some traditional tribal dances, admired the hand-carved red cedar ocean canoes on the beach, and watched the current flowing in the Strait under the changing evening light.
When I earned my MFA from Vermont College, Kevin surprised me with the gift of a signed first edition of Carver’s Where I’m Calling From. After the graduation ceremony, a small group of friends stopped by for drinks to celebrate our newly earned diplomas. We passed around the book, and I insisted everyone to take a turn lightly place their writing hand on top of Ray’s signature for good luck.
“. . . There’ll be a place on board for everyone’s stories.
Short stories and the ones that go on and on. The true
and the made-up. The ones already finished, and the ones still
being written. . .”
(from “My Boat” by Raymond Carver)
Last week on August 20th, the Library of America released Raymond Carver: Collected Stories in hardcover, 960 pages of stories and selected essays. I’ve noticed that the pages in my paperback copies from my student days are beginning to yellow; what better excuse to treat myself to a new edition?
Photo credits: Both photographs of Raymond Carver’s grave are copyright 2005 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.