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Returning to Nature

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Winter 2022

We read Paradise Lost my senior year of high school in Mr. P’s AP English class. Mr. P was married to my first-year English teacher, whose maiden name was often confused in my mind with the delicate membrane, sought after and highly treasured, that we girls were cautioned not to lose too soon. I loved that teacher. She would sometimes ask us about the music we liked and how we spent our downtime, making me think she was independent and free and wanted this for us too. It was because of her that I’d gone to Brazil on an exchange program my junior year. It was because of Brazil that I began to see the United States and its relationship with slavery and race more clearly. The town where I lived in Brazil was named after a saint and the only one in the country at the time named for a woman. It was also part of the last remaining Confederate colony in Brazil, founded by Southern soldiers who fled there at the end of the Civil War. 

When I returned from Brazil, I was disappointed to find that my old teacher, now married, had taken her husband’s name. But I was not disappointed in the new English class or my new teacher or Paradise Lost, which reminded me of the Psalms in both its lyricism and violent drama:

The World shall burn, and from her ashes spring
New Heav’n and Earth, wherein the just shall dwell.

My first night at Hedgebrook, a writing residency for women (I no longer call these communities “colonies”), I snuggled up near the potbellied stove in my cabin, deep in the western woods. I cracked open the cabin’s journal signed by so many women writers who’d gone there before me, and I read the last note by the last resident. I can no longer remember her reflection or the advice she left, or her name, only those lines copied from Paradise Lost, Book III. 

That was the name I’d given a chapter in the memoir I’d gone there to work on. The chapter is about a visit to my grandmother and her old house in New Orleans, both about to return to nature. It was two years after Hurricane Katrina and some local poet had summed up the scene on a concrete wall near my grandmother’s nursing home in bright bubbled graffiti. 

These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.


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