Poems by B.T. Baker

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Wonderland

by B.T. Baker

From Canary Summer 2015

BT lives in the Minnehaha Creek watershed in Minneapolis near two lakes, the Mississippi River, and the glorious Minnehaha Falls.

We were pathetically modern humans.

Some friends had generously given me and my wife Amy the use of their cabin for a weekend. Here’s what we thought we needed to survive for 36 hours: a cooler full of food, two big brown grocery bags stuffed with snacks, and a pair of suitcases bulging with clothes, toiletries, and other items that we couldn’t live without. We also brought our dogs. They didn’t pack anything.

The cabin was a three-hour drive north from our home in Minneapolis. We stopped halfway so the dogs could relieve themselves in a patch of grass at a truck stop, and then we continued on, metropolitan life receding behind us. We turned off the highway and followed a series of dirt roads until we arrived at the cabin. It was a simple, brown, one-story structure set deep on a large lot, secluded and private. The backyard sloped sharply toward a lake. The yard was filled with tall pine trees and the air smelled like fresh sheets.

The cabin was simply but thoughtfully designed. The front door opened into a large, white, light-filled kitchen. There was a screened porch on one end of the structure and a bathroom sandwiched between a pair of bedrooms near the front. The back half was dominated by a large living room with a wood floor and wooden walls. Rustic furniture was arranged around a stone fireplace. A wall of windows looked out over the lake, which shimmered like blue glass in the morning sun.

And there we were. There was no television, no cell phone coverage, no Internet, and no computers. We were completely disconnected. Off the grid.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I think technology has made us more disconnected – from our true selves, from nature, and from each other. People often say, “We’re Facebook friends,” which is the same thing as saying, “We’re not really friends.” Social media weakens the concept of friendship by emphasizing quantity over quality; it’s not the depth of one’s friendships that matter but merely the number. Face-to-face interactions are vanishing as everyone becomes self-created characters competing for attention in cyberspace, but every ounce of energy invested in an inauthentic online self creates a more hollow self in ordinary reality. At the cabin, gradually time began to downshift. Freed from the addicting grip of technology, I began to relax.

It got hot in the afternoon so we went down to the lake. Amy swam out to a floating dock while I stayed onshore. When I was a boy I struggled through years of swimming lessons. It was torture at every level – Beginners, Beginners II, Advanced Beginners, Intermediates, and Swimmers – I failed them all. My problem was simple: I was a coward. I was scared to get in the water; and when I finally got in I was scared to let go of the wall; and when I finally let go of the wall I was scared to put my head underwater; and when I finally put my head underwater I was scared to swim; and even after I learned to swim I was still scared to jump off the diving board.

Picture me then, standing at the end of the diving board as it bends and bounces beneath my feet. My knees are knocking. A long line of kids waits behind me, eager for their next chance to plunge in the pool. My teacher is treading water, ready to grab me and keep me from sinking. She encourages me to jump in, but I’m frozen at the end of the board. I stand alone, all eyes on me, my skinny legs shaking, the board flexing beneath me and making me queasy. The kids waiting behind me are losing their patience. One of them yells, “C’mon, you pussy – hurry up!”

Fine, I’m a pussy, but at least I’m a somewhat clever one. I retreat and walk down the steps of the diving board, and I tell my teacher that I need to use the bathroom. I dash inside the boys’ locker room, where my female teacher isn’t allowed. She won’t see me again until the next day.

Back at the cabin, I took our dogs to the end of the dock and encouraged them to jump in the water. Our yellow lab looked nervous, but our carefree golden retriever plunged in. And promptly started drowning. She had no idea how to swim – she was upside down underwater, panicked, flailing away, and sinking like a stone. Fortunately Amy was there to pull her to the surface and carry her back to shore. I toweled her off and reassured her that, “if Amy hadn’t been in the water to save you, I would’ve pushed her in.”

In the afternoon we took the dogs for a walk, following a dirt path that encircled a wooded area. We strolled along until the dogs froze, on high alert, ears and tails pointing straight up. I looked ahead and noticed what had their attention: three deer were standing in the road about 100 feet ahead of us. I’ve read about people waiting in line for hours to get the latest electronic gadget, and while I’m sure that experience provides temporary euphoria, there is no way it can match the wonder we felt quietly observing and admiring that family of deer, Nature’s most graceful of creatures.

It took less than a day of being in nature to unwind my tense urban self. When you walk beneath towering pine trees that sprouted long before you were born and will probably stand long after you’re buried, it quickly puts things in proper perspective: You are insignificant and your daily concerns are mostly trivial.

• • •

When I was nine years old, my grandma, whom we called Nana, took my sister and me to our family cabin for a week. It was a heroic effort for a woman in her late sixties. After we arrived, my sister and I immediately started playing a board game, leaving Nana to haul in a week’s worth of supplies by herself. The cabin was raised a story off the ground to protect it from spring floods, and every time Nana lugged heavy bags up the ten steps that led inside, we paused our game and pestered her: “Are you done yet? Can we go to the beach now?”

When Nana finally finished unloading everything, she collapsed in a rocking chair. Instead of letting the poor woman rest, we badgered her relentlessly. “Will you take us to the beach?”

“Just let me rest my eyes for 15 minutes.”

“Are you done sleeping yet?”

“Give me a few more minutes, kids.”

“How many minutes is a few?”

“Why don’t you put your swimsuits on?”

“They’re already on! Can we go now?”

We were just as intolerable when Nana finally took us to the beach. She sat patiently while we poured river mud all over her back. Then I took a stick and wrote GRANDMA GRUNT in the sand.

Nana endured six more days with us. The woman was a saint. One night I awoke to see her swiping at the ceiling with a broom. I asked her what she was doing. “Oh, there’s just a bird in here,” she said. Years later I realized that the “bird” was a bat.

Our cabin provided little more than basic shelter: a cold-water faucet in the kitchen, a wood furnace, and a two-seater outhouse in which a pair of kids could have exceptionally immature conversations. The cabin didn’t have a TV, so our days were filled with reading books, playing games, going to the beach and walking in the woods.

When the week of fresh air and grandmotherly love was over, I hugged Nana tightly and then got in my mom’s wood-paneled station wagon to go home. I buckled my seatbelt and looked out the window. I waved at Nana. She blinked. The cabin wasn’t much to leave behind – a dilapidated and decaying structure with a leaky roof and no toys. It hardly seemed a wonderland for a child. So why did I have a lump in my throat?

• • •

In the evening Amy and I closed most of the windows in the cabin because there was a chill in the air, the first breaths of autumn. We read books under the glow of two small lamps. We went to bed when we felt tired. We had no idea what time it was.

In the middle of the night our lab was restless, pacing, licking his paws, unable to settle down. I got out of bed and took him out into the dark night. Unpolluted by city lights, the sky was a deep black canvas painted with a million sparkling stars. A full, round, white-orange moon hung in the sky like an ornament. A wolf howled in the distance. I thought about how I couldn’t outrun a wolf dressed as I was in nothing but underwear and flip-flops.

After our lab finished sniffing around and peeing, I brought him back inside the cabin and immediately fell into a heavy sleep. I awoke before dawn, feeling refreshed. I fed the dogs and took them for a long walk in the cool morning air. After we returned to the cabin, I brewed a pot of coffee and lit a burner on the gas stove. I put four thick slices of bacon in a cast iron skillet. I left the burner on low. I wasn’t rushed. I didn’t have an agenda for the day. With the dogs lounging at my feet, I was content to sit at the kitchen table and sip coffee and enjoy the smells and sounds of the slow sizzling bacon.

Amy wandered into the kitchen as the sun peeked over the hills on the far side of the lake, illuminating a lone fisherman leisurely guiding his boat, making gentle ripples in the water. The little waves rolled along slowly, enjoying their journey, in no hurry to reach the shore.




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