Friday, August 22, 2014

Dispatch: Down-east farm stand stand-off

The fat man's afraid someone's taking his food away, and it might be me.

It's a hot August Friday afternoon in down-east North Carolina farm country. The fat man and I arrive at the farm stand at the exact same moment. We are the only customers. He's 400 pounds if he's an ounce. His tender white skin has been sunburned, and there's neat lines where white skin leaves off and skin the color of a country ham begins. A huge red T-shirt tightly encases his massive torso.

The fat man wants tomatoes. He moves directly to the heirlooms, corralling the dun-colored granny who runs the farm stand.

Farm stand tomatoes, Pamlico County, NC (Photo: DPS)
"I wanna box of these," he says, pointing.

"Ah'm sorry, we don't sell 'em by the box," she says with a heavy aw-shucks down-east accent, bobbing her head apologetically.

I approach. The fat man places his body directly between me and the box of tomatoes. He opens a white plastic shopping bag and starts placing the magnificent, baroquely-shaped fruit in the bottom of the bag with loving gentleness. The granny helps him.

"Git 'em in the bag quick 'fore anybod' else git 'em," he mumbles, his back to me. I am amused. I want to tease.

"Ooh, what kind are these?" I ask the granny, pointing to another box of large, deep red tomatoes with skin striped a dark olive green and still warm from the sun. The fat man hadn't seen that box.

"That's a kind of German Johnson," says granny. Nearly obliterated by his bulk, she has to crane her skinny neck around the fat man to speak to me.  The fat man whirls around and sees the other box. There's a look of panic on his face. The intruder might get some tomatoes after all!

The fat man reaches across my body to the box of German Johnsons. He spreads his huge hands over the fruit like a priest blessing the heads of children. He wiggles his swollen fingers and strokes the smooth, ripe tomato skin.

"Ah," he sighs. "More."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Independence Day: Sewanee, Tennessee

 “Ashes, ashes, we all get burned!” sings a little blonde boy, hopping up and down with excitement. He and his family walk towards the parade route on University Avenue in Sewanee, Tennessee. It’s July 4th, Year of Our Lord 2014, and the tiny town (population: 2,311) is jammed with people, both from here and from all the smaller, surrounding towns. They’ve come to see the Sewanee Independence Day parade, an annual attraction in Franklin County and beyond. There are people everywhere, lining the parade route, talking, walking, laughing, eating kettle corn, browsing the crafts fair. This has the feeling of something carefully preserved, a vintage piece of Americana, a tableau vivant from the 1950’s.
Sewanee, Tennessee paraders (Photo: DPSnyder)

The firetrucks, police and EMTs lead the parade route. People wave frenetically from atop the bright red trucks, lobbing handfuls of hard candy at kids. The emergency vehicle lights flash blue and red, the horns and sirens wail playfully. “SEE yuh!” screams the little boy to his parents. He runs after the firetrucks, free as air. They let him.

The carillon at All Saints Cathedral plays God Bless America. The notes tinkle down on the crowd like fairy dust. Families sit on handmade quilts that are pinned to the green lawns of the University of the South with tiny American flags. Women, babies and toddlers wear red, white and blue-themed outfits. A thin black girl, maybe 8-years-old, with tiny Old Glories stuck in her tight braids, swings shiny plastic Mardi Gras jewelry like an exotic dancer, moving her limbs in a complicated, improvised dance to music that only she can hear. Friends greet friends, point camera phones, laugh. The town is packed.

Now the floats come down the Avenue. Leading them are the two Grand Marshalls, looking self-conscious in their black, convertible Camaro. Themed vehicles, trailers and marchers roll slowly behind them: Panther Pride; John Deere; Sewanee Tiger Sharks; a red, white and blue calliope on a big old trailer. Little boys devilishly laugh and caper, bombing parade watchers with thick streams of water from orange and green plastic cannons. It’s hot, and no one minds. Tiny little girls in silver leotards tumble down the Avenue, sometimes becoming dizzy and planting on the cement. The Veterans of Foreign Wars pass in a rusty, butter-yellow El Torino, its motor turning over with the deep roar of a muscle car.  “Please Vote for Helen Stapleton, County Commissioner” implores a banner. A trailer full of muddy off-road vehicles proclaims, “This is how we roll!" It flies four, big Confederate flags. 

How do they roll, I wonder? 

A mile and a half away, at Jackson Myers Airfield, the crowd is sparser, quieter, more intense. We scan the sky, waiting for the tiny plane to appear. We hear it before we see it. The announcer narrates the “trick flying show” through a megaphone. Her tone of voice is broadly humorous to offset the real danger of what’s going on above our heads. “The old saying is, ‘never fly with a pilot who calls himself Ace.’ (beat) But that’s his name, folks!” The crowd laughs on cue. “Ace is gonna show you a hammerhead now, followed by a four point roll.” The plane ascends straight up, then tips and descends straight down as if it were about to crash. But no! Ace steadies the small plane out and then rolls, holding each point for a few seconds, like a military jet. One. Two. Three. Four points. Applause. The spectators ooh and ah as Ace completes the “reverse cube and figure 8”, some more rolls, some spins. The sky is perfectly clear. Just a few stratus clouds like fine white hair blowing in the blue sky. Ace completes a “snap and roll”, another loop, and then a series of fast rolls as a final flourish. “Give him a hand, folks!” cries the announcer. Dry applause rises, then scatters in the breeze.

A few hours later, it’s my turn. I’ve bought a ride to heaven in a little Cessna 172. I’m declaring my independence of the Earth today, at least for a short while. The pilot, Sam (not “Ace”), asks me if I’ve ever been in a small plane before. I say yes. But it’s been a long time.

I hoist myself up to the Cessna’s cab by placing a foot on the landing gear struts, and once inside, I strap on the shoulder harness. It's just an ordinary car safety belt. The interior cab on this prop plane is smaller than my Kia Rio, and is also made mostly of plastic and rubber. Sam hops in on the other side, and we adjust our beige bucket seats forward. I have a steering wheel in front of me, too, and I quickly glance over the fairly simple array of black plastic gauges and knobs. He turns the key, and the propeller coughs to a start, spinning fast. I can feel the cross-currents. Sam tells me the wind never stops blowing up on this plateau. It buffets the plane from the side as we start to move.

Now we’re ready to take flight. We roll down the short runway, picking up speed fast. I know that this is the kind of tiny plane that occasionally rams into a mountainside, a skyscraper, or just senselessly plummets to earth. But in deciding to leave the earth today in a vehicle this small, I declare that I want to feel alive a lot more than I want to stay alive. The little plane noses up. We are airborne.

From a thousand feet up, the dark-green, tree-blanketed Cumberland plateau and the University campus look like neat, scale models. We fly due southwest, into the late afternoon sun. The propeller spins smooth and loud, constant and reassuring. After a few minutes, the plateau shears off sharply below us and we see the neat grid of fields and farms. I see the angry cut of a limestone quarry, the forking of platinum rivers. I am delighted like a child to be free of earth and all its encumbrances. With our big headphones and microphones on, Sam and I can communicate with each other above the din of the propeller, and I become aware that I keep saying how great this is, how amazingly great. This is so great, I say. And it is. There’s nobody and nothing up here, just me and a competent pilot.  My mind is clear. The simplicity and beauty of it fills me with joy. 

When Sam turns the little Cessna back northeast toward the airfield, I feel a pang of regret that I have to return to earth. Better to stay up here, I think. Above the crowds. Simple. Lighter than air.
High above the Cumberland Plateau (Photo: DPSnyder)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dispatch: Fields of Stone

Bond Angel, the old cemetery, Sewanee, TN
(photo: D.P. Snyder)
June 27, 2014, Sewanee, TN -- “The fortified ego is the cause of immense suffering.” This thought is tickling my brain when I catch sight of the perpetually half-open, black iron gate of the old cemetery. There are no fortifications here. The walls of the cemetery are low, lichen-covered and tumble-down, as if the stones had arrived there by accident. The open gate is a sign. Come on in, it says.
The people that lie beneath my feet suffer no more. Their egos were removed at the moment of death, or so they say. The colors in this graveyard are all gray, no matter what color they are.
The central path is gravel overgrown by grass and weeds. I walk down it, and am drawn to a tall, stone angel.  It stands nine feet high, and its stone wings form a symmetrical arc over its head. Its stone feathers are uniform and stiff as the scales of a fish. My gaze travels from the androgynous face to the lichen-coated toes. Below them is a name: Bond, my mother’s maiden name. I raise my gaze to the angel’s face just as a beam of white light illuminates it, forming a halo around the head that is impossibly bright given the heavy cover of hemlock branches. The edges of the angel’s wings glow, ultraviolet. I raise my phone and snap a picture.
I wait. There is no clap of thunder. No one speaks. Within a minute more or less, the intense light recedes. Then it’s just me, alone again, staring at stones.
This is my condition: a wanderer, walking through fields of stone, believing in miracles.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dispatches from Sewanee

Here at the School of Letters at Sewanee, I have the good fortune to be in Neil Shea's creative non-fiction writing workshop. One of the exercises we do for this class is a daily writing called a Dispatch. In Dispatches, we experiment on the page every day in short form, setting down our experiences as they happen. I will share some of my Dispatches here.

June 26, 2014, Sewanee, TN -- “Oh-oh! The smell’s gettin’ into my eye-yuhs,” the tiny girl in the yellow and pink flowered smock yells happily, extending the word "eyes" into two syllables. She holds her tiny white fingers over her face, and peeks. She’s just calling attention to herself. It’s not her birthday party, and she’s too little to light rockets and roman candles. But she dances on the periphery of the action, flirting with danger, while the boys yell and shout urgent directions to each other. “Run!” “Get back!” “Don’t touch it!” 

The man and woman oversee the action, but not too closely. They’re the ones who brought the Jr. Pyro Backpack from Black Cat, the largest fireworks supplier in the South. The birthday girl, twelve years old today, watches the action carefully, but stays apart. She stands close to the woman, twirling a glossy, brown sausage curl around her finger, observing with interest. 

The oldest boy is thin, tall and in charge of the serious rockets. His face is tanned and angular, his hair many shades of natural blonde. He does the lighting the way the man showed him to. He crouches over a rocket on the sidewalk. His faded red t-shirt drapes perilously close to the fuse while he snaps the Bic lighter, once, twice, three times. He lights it and leaps backwards gracefully and dramatically. The rocket shoots into the sky, sputtering blue fire. This boy’s starting to show himself as a teenager. He’s learning how to be the popular boy. He’ll set off many more mortars and rockets in high school and college. He’ll get into trouble a few times, too, and maybe he'll burn something down. Girls will fall for him like dominoes. 

The tiniest boys have snappers, poppers, and sparklers. They dance like happy demons in the road, dashing the poppers to the cement with a pop-pop-pop. The little children laugh and swoop like swallows, playing with danger, and their laughter rises and falls with the cicadas’ song into the damp, primeval Tennessee night. 

The grown-ups stand back, smile and remember.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

An Easter Story

In the beginning, he knew the darkness. It was a darkness so complete that breath was impossible. He could not hear his own breath. He could not feel his own breath. Neither did he know if his eyes were open or closed.

He could not tell how long he lay in this state. It might have been seconds. It might have been centuries. The darkness pressed around him, at once infinite and claustrophobic, a vast emptiness, a humid black fabric that seemed to wrap him from head to toe, leaving no space between him and itself. It was complete.

After passing some time in this way, he became aware of a prickling that reminded him that he had form. This was not welcome to him. It was as if hundreds, then thousands of tiny electric explosions were detonating at random distances from where he felt himself to be. Attentive, he observed them. He had not yet connected them with himself. He only knew that they were there, and that he was there, too. It was a start.

He settled back into himself. It was utter silence, a perfect circle. Comforting. But then the prickling came again, distracting him, and without willing himself to do it, he began to assemble a pattern in the small explosions. He began to perceive them in the perfect darkness, though not seeing them at all, as if they were random events, rod-shaped and impending, emerging from nothingness and multiplying, evidence of a volcanic event, bearing down upon him and shattering the otherwise perfect darkness.

He resisted.

From somewhere, he mustered will. He brought immense will to bear on the rods of light, commanding them to retreat. For the darkness was simple, and the scattered sensations, formless but present, brought something to his chest that felt like panic. He did not wish to be among them. He did not wish to fall again.

Again and again, he focused his will on the scattered explosions that prickled him all over, for he was beginning to grasp that they were happening inside of him as well as outside of him. And though he commanded them to subside over and over again, first one rod of light would appear in the vastness of the darkness, and then another, glowing and menacing. And he knew, feeling the impending dread of it, that no matter how many times he drove it back, another rod of light would soon be born of the darkness. First one, then another, and then countless more, in an infinite and unstoppable crescendo, as if a terrible and complex architecture were being raised above him, whose only purpose was to crash down and obliterate him.

He fought it back again, and he longed for the simplicity of the darkness. He was tired.

At last he knew he was beaten.  He knew that this could not go on, and that he would have to let the relentless light take him. He determined to surrender. So the next time a rod of golden light appeared in the perfect infinity of the blackness like an undeniable command, he spoke and said, "So be it". And he waited to fall.

The light overwhelmed him. He let it.

And he felt in that moment a painful tugging and an unbearable velocity, as if he were free-falling through all of space without limit, but also leaving a small part of himself far, far behind in the dark and silent place where he had been resting. It was this loss, the loss of that infinitely small part of himself, that made him remember who he was.

He cried out.

And the great rock rolled slowly from the mouth of the cave.

Photo: Back Mouth Cave, © Sam West

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Wreck and Salvage

"Good afternoon, young lady," calls Captain Roy from his perch on the wood deck of the big barn at Pickers near Milestone as I make my way through a field of rusted hulks. I am almost 54 and still look pretty good, but I wonder where the tipping point is when "young lady" stops being a flirt and starts being patronizing, ironic.

Captain Roy is neither patronizing nor ironic. His left leg is in a white plaster cast, and purplish toes with sharp, long yellowed nails are sticking out the end of the gleaming white exoskeleton that's holding his leg together; the skin above and below the cast looks angry, wasted.  I ask him how he broke his leg, and he doesn't say, just says, "They almost cut it off last year." Beat. "Hi, I'm Captain Roy. I'm a tugboat captain." And he extends his hand in greeting.

He is a tugboat captain. (D.P. Snyder)
"There was this little thing called Hurricane Irene", he says with a getting-underway tone of voice, like an old train gathering steam. "Took out the first floor of our house, took out my trucks, too,"  he says, gesturing vaguely across the huge field of rusting equipment at two large, white panel trucks sunk deep in the muddy stubble about 75 yards away. "Had to take out the motors."

Captain Roy tells me that his wife Angie runs the place, but he's watching it for her today. "She's young, like you two", he remarks as my husband walks up behind me. Captain Roy is not young and this business of the leg has made him aware that he is, in fact, old. It's three years since he messed up the leg,  since an accident the details of which he does not reveal, but which must have happened right before Irene. There's a big, beautiful old Harley Davidson motorcycle parked inside the barn; its black metal skin and Cyclops eye are gleaming from inside in the half-light.

"After the accident, the hospital cost 50 thousand," he says, and they wanted to cut off the leg to here," he says, marking the spot with a swift cutting gesture on the shin where a whirring saw would have severed bone from bone. But the surgery, the prosthesis and the rehab would have cost a million dollars, so he found "these two doctors at Duke", and they put his leg back together for him. "I still work the tug boat," he tells me. "Can't afford to stop working, so I just stump around on this," he says giving the plaster cast a playful whack.

American Pie (D.P. Snyder)
From where Captain Roy sits on the raised platform in front of the old barn, he can see pretty deep inside where mysterious, frayed, and rusted objects are stacked in a thick but orderly succession, like with like. He can see out, too, across the vast stubble field where rusted stoves, grills, tractors, tools, sailboats, and even a lime green Gatorade go-cart sit in quiet meditation under the fragile, white February sun. "Tug boat got beat up pretty bad, too," he says. "She was out there in the water when Irene came." And then he goes quiet.

Irene. Did a lot damage down-east, a lot of damage. Homes gone, boats gone, lives gone. Lives just broken badly, too, and then left to rust.  "Damn shame a man has to end his life with nothing," says Captain Roy. "Damn shame." I want to ask him what he thinks of universal healthcare, but I don't.

In a bin full of pocket knives, I find a vintage one made in Pakistan in the 50's. The bolster is green and long, curved just right to fit in the palm of my hand or slide slick as a salamander into the pocket of my jeans. It's got two blades, one long and sharp, and the other one serrated like a saw with a bottle opener on the end. Handing him a ten, I tell Captain Roy it was in the $5 bin. "Shouldn't have been", he says, "that's a vintage knife," and he hands me my change. There's no way to hand him back the $5 without insulting him, so I buy a weird little green plastic rake with an aluminum handle instead; I'll use it to rake the dunes on our strip of beach.

Amid the broken machines and objects of a happier time, Captain Roy sits in his old wood chair wearing a camouflage cap that shows he's a Veteran. The bill of his cap casts a sharp shadow across his face so that the only features you see are the white Papa Hemingway beard and his wire frame glasses floating in the penumbral space between beard and hat, seeing everything, reflecting the pale, late winter sky.

Shovels, Pamlico County, NC (D.P. Snyder)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

February, Piedmont Garden

Dry Pods (R. Taylor Monk)
The Sun has come out in Piedmont at last, just enough to melt last week's thick cover of snow and ice into patches, carving an atlas of irregular, dun-colored continents into the ground of our yard. Beneath the melt, the dominant color is brown, and the shrubbery shows crisp patches of destroyed foliage and broken branches, visible damage from a hard freeze of unaccustomed duration.

In our big kitchen window there's a sprig of kitchen rosemary that I rooted unintentionally in a glass of water; now I'm helping it take its first tentative steps toward independence in a pot of moist loam, dug from under last year's leaf pile. I am distrustful of the thin white water roots because so many times they've proved too feeble to handle the richness of real earth. Rooted cuttings placed too soon or too late in soil will crisp and die, so you must feel out that precise moment when the young plant is still excited enough to develop a real root system, and not made so lazy by water's lack of resistance that its thin, white roots will despair and rot when buried in real ground. I recognize that this "feeling" of mine is not scientific, and occasionally I look up such matters online in an effort to discipline my gardening efforts; then I promptly forget what I've read. I simply feel out the moment, and I try to love my garden to life.

Also in our kitchen is a rosebush that Dog and I found on a walk the other day, just before the big storm, a beautifully bowl-shaped knockout rose that some fool had jerked out of the ground, shearing off most of its roots in the process. I am speechless in the face of the violence that humans do to living things. But a single root still trailed from the thick stalk, and so I brought it home, sinking it in a pot of loose earth and pruning its live wood hard, amputating half of the bush in an effort to help it understand that all of its energy must now go toward making roots. I keep it good and wet in a plastic lined cardboard box full of earth, and I move it around the kitchen every day to expose it to every possible minute of the feeble February sunlight. Perhaps the rose will find the courage to put forward another vein-like root. And then another.

Whether the rosemary makes it or not, whether the rose makes it or not, will it be destiny? Or will it be because of me?

I am not above thinking that I am an instrument, a small but stubbornly hopeful scrap of a larger logic or spirit. I don't give that thing a name, I just feel it numinous around me and hope that human failures like ego and pride are far beneath it, whatever it is. I have not been given the gift of belief in dime-store gods. But I do feel the force of will behind the movements of the earth and in the sighing of the wind. I feel, and I obey.

It's the nature of conscious beings, and I include Dog in this, to be at their most desperate when they feel themselves utterly alone, solely responsible for the outcome of their lives and the lives of those they love. Dog looks to me to make things happen; my husband and I look to each other as well for comfort and protection; and neighbors are charmed when a word or gesture indicates that the reassuring tendrils of love extend, if only slightly, from your house to theirs via a card, a lunch invitation, or a wave hello. But as those tendrils become hyper-extended and aim at a wider circle of influence, it is common for the love inspiration to become something more like a desire for power, something like control, something harder and less connected to the true source. We begin to wish that we could erect fences around all those whom we love to prevent the necessary chaos of life from hurting them. We begin to want to dominate.

I love the fragile young rosemary. I love the abandoned rose. I love the azalea I planted last year whose crown has taken on a stricken look from frost burns. I love the tiny "remaindered" fig tree that I bought for one dollar at the end of last season and sunk casually into the dark earth at the edge of the forest where it has been since preyed upon by ravenous deer. I love the old bent beech tree that arcs toward the afternoon light like a dancer; and I feel an abiding sisterhood with the little native holly that my husband rescued from a ravenous wisteria vine, not unlike the way he rescued me six years ago. The abundance and health that the holly now enjoys extends itself to the bees who will drink its nectar, and to the robins who will nest this spring in its strong, homely branches. We are all of us charged with spreading our good fortune to others.

I'll admit it: I am afraid to go out to the field, to the forest, to my trampled beds to see what damage winter has done to my garden. I am terrified that I may discover that the hosta, spider lilies and rust-colored ferns that I sunk into the forest floor in autumn will be found rotten and lifeless. Will all my efforts to cultivate this small Eden have come to naught? Am I fully responsible for what happens on this piece of earth, or is it destiny?

Spring is not without its terrors. But the sun is shining, albeit thinly, and I hear birds singing. So I'll screw up my courage, pull on my rubber boots and canvas gloves, and I'll head out to the garden today with my bypass pruner jammed into the pocket of my old jeans. I'll start cautiously by gathering fallen branches, and then perhaps I'll touch some of those crisp leaves and twigs, turning them over in my fingers and inspecting them for signs of life. And if by chance I do discover some green shoot emerging, responding to the gentle tickling of this thin February sun, I'll pause for a moment and look. And what I feel will be love.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Earth Trembles in Milestone.

"Only in Pamlico County can there be a blizzard and an earthquake just hours apart," submitted B. to R., who proceeded to forward the message to me here in Piedmont. On Monday, February 10 at 8:11 p.m. there was an earthquake measuring 2.5 on the Richter Scale with its epicenter at the mouth of Goose Creek near Goose Creek Island, North Carolina (which, incidentally, is the birthplace of Miss C., our beloved neighbor and the wife of R.) "Big boom like thunder," writes B., "in the Commonwealth of Milestone, four miles south of downtown Bethany Crossing." What's more, by 9 this a.m., snow had fully covered the ground, which is a rare enough event in Downeast North Carolina to be remarked upon. Now, the snow is falling here in Piedmont too, thick and wet, and shows no sign of letting up. 
Channel Marker (The Big River at Milestone. Photo:. R. Snyder)

These are times of signs and omens.

I've posted before in this space about the end of the world (see here, and here), and I've always done so tongue firmly placed in cheek. But now it's February when one's thoughts turn to the color gray, the fact of death, and the seeming pointlessness of it all, and I would have to say that if the tectonic plate supporting Milestone is doing a mambo, the end of times may be closer than I had originally thought. Tongue firmly removed from cheek.

Nor was it good news a few days ago when R. shot us a series of evening emails from Milestone to us here in Piedmont to report a suspicious and grim situation unfolding across the street. The first message announced the advent of a old, beat-up ambulance to the Milestone front door of our elderly neighbor J.; the next one reported the arrival of police who drew on their rubber gloves in a disconcertingly unhurried way. And the final report declared the exit of a body -- fully draped -- from J's domicile. 

Here's the thing: I already knew something was going to happen, because I had seen it clear as day in his eyes two weeks before. It was a night just past full moon when my husband and I found him sitting alone in his car with the motor off, right there in the parking lot with the windshield angled so that he had a clear view out over the broad, black, moonlit waters of the Big River. No radio, no light, no company, no nothing. And as he wearily lowered the car window to greet me that night, offering a barely audible "hey", I saw eternity right there reflected in his smudged bifocals. The message pinged my brain pan clear as digital, "This man is dying."

That night, my husband and I walked in silence up the three flights of wooden stairs to the Lighthouse. We were both thinking the same thing, and as soon as we closed the front door behind us, we spoke almost simultaneously: "I'm worried about him." We agreed he seemed depressed, and we couldn't figure out why he was still in Milestone, since he had told us he was going to leave for the northeast a week ago.  We agreed between us to keep an eye on him. And the next day when we saw him, he remarked that he felt exhausted. "Left my heart medicine in the car last night," he sighed, sitting there on the front steps as if he had gotten stuck there going either up or down. "Getting old is the worst," he added, "It's. Just. The. Worst." My husband agreed, playfully moaning about his tennis elbow and creaky knees. "You? You have no idea," chuckled J. bitterly, "You have no idea. Not yet, you don't."

Two weeks later we returned from Piedmont to find J.'s car still there, parked almost diagonally between two parking spaces. Suspicions aroused, we knocked on his door, because by now his departure was seriously overdue, and when there was no answer, my husband went around to look through the windows of the house. But he saw no one, only the usual confusion of semi-packed moving boxes, a old left-over mop, and some scattered construction materials and paint cans. J. was supposed to rent the place out, or sell it. I write "supposed to" because he didn't want to, he said, but his wife and his daughter wanted him to.  They also wanted him to get a new car, so they "made" him sell his beloved old Toyota, and he didn't like the new car, he said. Didn't like it at all. Missed his Toyota ("that was a good car, a quality car.") They had made him give up his boat, too, he had told us, and he had handed the boat over to his daughter. She has it somewhere, he said, but he didn't know where. One got the feeling that everything familiar to him, everything he loved, everything that defined him to himself, was peeling away like objects scattering in zero gravity, and that what he recognized as his life was irretrievably disappeared. He was lost.

The next day we were leaving the Lighthouse to return to Piedmont when J. appeared, perhaps just returning from a lunch out, and he drove into the parking lot as we threw our bags into the trunk of our car. We're headed out, we said. Remember, if you need our help with anything here, you just let us know, okay? We'll do whatever we can, we said, reminding him that he had all of our contact information -- and did he need us to write it down again? Nope, I've got it and will do, he said with a crooked smile, standing there on the gravel of the parking lot, his arms limp at his sides like an old teddy bear with stuffing missing. He looked gray, dazzled and lost without his glasses -- where were his glasses? -- in the stale, unflattering winter light. He had no coat on, and it was cold. I felt that pull, a pull I've had before, that starts somewhere in my chest and that makes me open my arms and say, "Hug?" So I walked over and I hugged him, and asked him to please take care himself. And then we said goodbye.

I guess we weren't surprised to hear that J. died there, alone, in his house by the river a few days ago. Snowstorms happen, earthquakes happen, and every minute of every day somebody's world comes to an end.  J.'s wife called us a few days ago to thank us for trying to help. Our numbers, she said, were the only ones he had kept in his "file".  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dark Country

Here in Tiny Town on a Sunday night it was already dark at 6 in the evening, and I had pretty much lost my will to go on. I had spent hours on the help lines of both Apple and Dell trying to figure out why my new Apple DVI mini adapter was not bringing a picture to the Dell 1800FP analog display that FF gave me, and my "unresolved issue" seemed to have quite destroyed my desire to accomplish anything. That, and the darkness.

It is very dark now in Tiny Town. A velvety black darkness falls upon us earlier and earlier out in Stag County as autumn creeps up on us and our gardens. It gets to 6 PM and we are stunned that it is night already, and even though we know the winter's coming on like it does every year, we say to each other "what happened?" Behind closed doors, we talk about what it would be like to move to South Carolina, or anywhere south where the light and the warmth hang on a little longer. Oh sure, we can stroll to Main Street where the colonial-style street lights cast a dim yellow on the brick sidewalks, and where twinkling strings of Italian lights illuminate the faces of the faithful huddled around the gas heaters at the Lenape Inn's outdoor tiki bar. But the feebleness of the illumination only serves to emphasize the vast depth of the darkness and does nothing to cheer it. Chill autumn seeps in through the cracks in the old wood of the the garage siding where the Virginia creeper goes scarlet, and works its way into the drying leaves of the hydrangeas and burns the cheeks of the maples along the Delaware. I check the shed for shovels, salt. I wash sweaters, and I realize I don't have any that I like very much.

It is dark in Tiny Town, and the elections are almost upon us. FF and I watch the TV in the evening and are left speechless by the dumb viciousness of the political attack ads that all the commentators seem to agree "work". But to what end do they "work" except to mislead the voting public and fan the flames of generalized middle class anger? If that is "working" I'd rather have disfunction. When FF and I have the energy, which is rarer now as the light fades, we check out Politifact and research the inflamed statements delivered to us by the candidates themselves and the rabble-rousing "non-profits" that place their ads on Comcast: We find that most of the accusations made are either "mostly untrue" or "pants on fire". Our airwaves are absolutely gummed up with deliberate, nasty lies. Oh, did I say "our"? Yes, I know, the airwaves stopped belonging to the American public year before last and now Mom doesn't have TV because she refuses to pay for cable and instead has a converter box, swearing that the stations come in better when she sits the iron on top of the TV. The political stank smells pretty bad here in town, and it almost overcomes the perfume of the drying leaves. FF and I might just start leaving the television off, which will leave the house a little bit darker still.

Next week, I will cast my ballot at the Tiny Town Eagle Fire Company Engine House where we keep our bright shiny fire trucks and the new EMT ambulance bought with funds raised from the Wednesday night spaghetti suppers and a few private donors. It will be the first time in over 25 years that I have not voted in New York City and (as you all have reminded me) my vote will likely count more here in bright blue Stag County. I am taking the morning off to do it, and I plan to hang around the polling place for a while to feel the vibe.

Tiny Town is proud of its spirit of self-reliance and its spaghetti dinner fundraisers. Here lives a piquant mix of extremely wealthy country squires and very middle to lower middle class workers and immigrants. Our county is the third wealthiest in Pennsylvania, and Republicans outnumber Democrats by a very long shot. There is a fair rumble of Tea Party sympathy, though we have no Tea Party candidates in this upcoming election. The Tea Party is too extreme and déclassé even for Stag County. Anger at and distrust of government has reached hissy fit on the dial, and that's the most popular sentiment you hear over the counter at the Eagle Diner where the working class gathers for the blue plate special. The problems of society have become too complex and overwhelming for those too intellectually impatient, unprepared or unwilling to bend their minds to ideas, and so comes the bitter call to "get all the bastards out". At any cost.

I am afraid of these sentiments, afraid of the growing feeling that we can just emote our way out of the problems in which we finds ourselves. I am afraid of our willingness to be attracted to terrible bombast and be dismissive of thoughtfulness which, by nature, is quieter. Yes, our problems are complex, but not too complex to think out in a reasoned way. But that kind of thinking takes patience and a kind of focus that is hard to come by in this time of money and attention deficits. Social, economic and personal disappointments weigh hard on the people of Stag County, and if we drive west to York where FF's parents live, I can see the discontent-o-meter rising  higher on the faces of the people with each mile west we drive. They wouldn't say so out loud, but the people farther west and north of Tiny Town don't understand why their kitchens don't look like the ones on HGTV, and they're sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Free-floating discontent feeds free floating anger feeds "get the bastards out". At any cost.

I want to go see it for myself. I want to go northwest where the Alleghenies meet the border of upstate New York and maybe stop at a diner in Dimock, Susquehanna County where it's 98% percent white, 60% registered Republican and dirt poor. That's where Norma Fiorentino's house blew up because methane gas leaked from the drilling in the Marcellus Shale into her well water. The utilities, all part of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, are sucking the natural gas out of the good Pennsylvania shale around Norma's house and out of vast tracts of Pennsylvania countryside. They promise jobs. They promise to turn dirt farmers into millionaires with royalty payments, the kind of overnight "success" that the people yearn for. The voters of Susquehanna County are grabbing for that gold ring and, after all, who wouldn't? Things have not changed in Dimock at all in over a century except that the buildings are older and dirtier now. The folks in Dimock don't take kindly to the thoughtful suggestion made by the Democratic candidate for governor that we need to take another look at this shale drilling thing, regulate it, and fund the EPA properly to keep an eye on the drilling companies. No, "Drill, baby, drill" is the motto the people can get behind in Susquehanna county. And if someone's house blows up, well, that's just the price of progress.

A place where they tell you to open the windows before you take a bath is not somewhere I want to live. And the idea of flaming tap water is downright Apocalyptic. Oh, yeah, it's getting darker in Susquehanna County.

The Dark Ages began when the Roman Empire fell. Go read it for yourself; Gibbon is still waiting for you, all six volumes. You connect the dots: Superstition, ignorance, desperation, the decline of cultural artifacts, the rise of belief over knowledge. Oh, for the darkness of the womb! But I want to have that discussion, Susquehanna, about why you vote almost straight Republican when the same fellows that brought you the trillion dollar boondoggle called the Iraq War where your sons and daughters got their arms and legs blown off, are now trying to bring you methane-flavored water so that you can blow up your own own house by taking a bath. Can we have that discussion, Susquehanna?

In New York City, where it is always bright and the night sky takes on the comforting aspect of a soft violet pink dome, I was sheltered from this darkness for so many years. We heard about it, read about it in the New York Times, but in New York City you can always go downtown and forget all your worries, forget all your cares, just like Petula sang. There, in the glittering 24-hour midway of writers, hipsters, Rockefeller University wizards, university kids and the lords of hip hop and poetry jam, you can believe that you're living in a world that is getting brighter and more brilliant, not darker and dumber. But here in Stag County, it's getting darker. And it's getting darker still in Dimock, and all over Susquehanna, Johnstown and Juniata counties. There's no soft, pink dome hanging over the dark, hulking, cool coal backbone of Pennsylvania, north and west of the Alleghenies. All that they have out in those parts is the kind of chill that takes a century to set into your bones, the lonely whistle of the train in the night, and the stark rage that comes from being left in dark for too long while other people get to dance with the stars. From the shadows of northern and western Pennsylvania, they see the bright lights of New York City twinkling like the eye of Sauron from the TV in living room. But there amongst the TV trays, the sprung sofas, the smell of disappointment and the unpaid mortgages, a spark of longing ignites into stark fury.

It's getting dark now in Stag County. Here in the comfort of Tiny Town, I am not nearly as sunk into the shadows as many others. But now that I have left the shining dome of the Emerald City, I can peer a little deeper into the night and, as winter comes on, I see a dark country.