Time has whittled down my memory, bent it, condensed it; even habitual acts have been flattened into large, nearly motionless images dense with feeling. It has been 20 years since I graduated from Amherst, and if I focus my mind and coax them, all the small memories of classes or hanging out in someone’s common room can begin to shyly return to me with their strong flavors of giddiness or humiliation or tedium or joy. And yet, if I have neither the time nor the will to remember fully, or if I am thinking of Amherst in passing, my four years of college always come to me compressed into a single moment, a cold early spring in an eight, rowing on the Connecticut River.
In this elided memory, I find myself always in the seconds just after a hard row; there is a sense of bodily warmth and repletion and the relief of great effort just released. The sky has barely lightened, there is a hint of pink and pearl to its edges, and all the trees and bushes on the bank are leafless with winter, the fields skeletal and frosted. The animals are still huddled asleep in their warm dens, out of sight, and there are no cars on the bridges, nobody seemingly awake in the world but these nine tired bodies in the boat. The river is dark, chill, there are perilous chunks of ice in it, and down the long dark stretch behind the coxswain, curls of fog are coming up off the surface of the water. Everyone is silent. Our oars are lifted. The boat is still gliding forward, our bodies held in perfect balance for this long, hushed moment that goes on and on, a moment that has lingered, now, in gliding balance inside me for these past 20 years.
“In this memory, I find myself always in the seconds just after a hard row.”
Photograph by Marco Giugliarelli for Civitella Ranieri
As synecdoche, this moment is both rich and apt, I think. It seems to hold in it much of the abstract good that I carried away from Amherst when I graduated: the real satisfaction that comes from hard work, the implicit seeking of balance and that perfect sensation of glide, the understanding that there is no such thing as individual action separate from larger and more communal action. I took more concrete good away from rowing, as well: I met my husband, Clay Kallman ’00, on the team, and we have two sons, one of whom is beginning to row this fall with his middle school team. There is not a month that goes by when—on a run when I’m not feeling at my best, or if I’m in the middle of doing something for work that seems impossible—I do not tell myself what our kind and dedicated coach, Bill Stekl, once said: “Nearly anyone can do nearly anything, as long as they do it slowly enough.” All right, I tell myself, seeing Bill’s stern, bearded face before me, and I take a deep breath and slow my run down, or focus on the single next word and the one after that. These together at last make a sentence, and the sentences make a paragraph, and the paragraphs make a piece, and the pieces coalescing eventually make for a life devoted to art. Memory-Bill has yet to be wrong; I somehow, very slowly, muddle through.
But perhaps the most prosaic daily good that I took away from Amherst was another lesson I’d learned from rowing: that the super-early morning, when everyone you know and love is still dreaming comfortably in their beds, holds the true and hidden beauty of the day. It seems astonishing that college students, with their packed social schedules and the endless work of learning, are required to get up before dawn for crew team. To rise in the dark; to force the tired body into a thin-shelled, delicate, expensive boat on a river you can barely see; to push that body into simultaneous aerobic and anaerobic stress; to be shouted at by small and determined people; to get bleeding blisters on the meat of the hands; to, clumsy with half-dreaming, perhaps catch an oar right in the solar plexus that takes the breath away—all of this should add up to a form of torture for the already sleep-deprived. But I loved it. I thrived in the slow and early dark and the effort at the beginning of waking. I clung to these hours of sharpest sensation through the four years of Amherst, into my life beyond Amherst. I cling to them still.
I clung to these hours of sharpest sensation through the four years of Amherst. I cling to them still.”
I found that if you rise before 5 in the morning, you rise into a silent, dark world that for long and luxurious hours can be entirely yours. Time stretches somehow longer before dawn, it is richer in possibility, and you can go deeper and faster into work or play. These days, in my house in Florida, I get up before the alarm goes off at 5, fetch my coffee and climb upstairs into the little blue room that used to be a nursery for my boys and that has now become my study. I sit down and, while still waking, find myself already deep in my work. On the streets below, there are no cars passing or cats fighting or college students walking home loudly drunk; in the house there are no voices of loved ones to distract me, no need to walk the dog or make food for hungry children or counters to scrub or long to-do lists that eat away at my composure. There is only the darkness in the window and my imagination and the work that I love. There I stay until the concentration breaks, and when I come out of my early work sessions, it is still somehow morning, and the entire day stretches out before me, hours of open sunlight and the extravagance of relaxed time now that my deep, true work has already been done. I remember this feeling from Amherst: the entire team driving back relieved and tired in the vans, then coming in to breakfast at Valentine with our long workout already finished, the fresh air in our clothes and a hearty appetite worked up, and hours still to go until our first classes. That calm stretch of time always felt hopeful.
In Lydia Davis’ translation of the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, the novel titled Swann’s Way, the text ends like this: “The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.” This is true. At the same time, also true is that sometimes memories live deep in our flesh and that in our bodies we hold the memories of the places we have been. Our memories remain alive because they become habits and radiate out of the past, into our daily lives. Twenty years after Amherst, when I wake every morning at dawn, I am waking back into Amherst, also. Before me the dark and the long, flat, cold river are waiting.
Groff is a two-time National Book Award finalist, for her story collection Florida and her novel Fates and Furies. Her sixth book, Matrix, just came out.
Illustration by Elisabetta Bianchi