Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent at the End of the World

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
- Robert Frost 

Advent has come, and along with it the end of the world. Again.  FF, Dog and I are spending this apocalypse at the Lighthouse, our secret hideaway here on a high bluff overlooking the Big River in Milestone, not far from Bethany Crossroads in inter-coastal, down east North Carolina. 

This is not the famous Outer Banks, where jet-setters go to build million-dollar mansions and pursue the pleasures of yachting, deep water fishing and the perfect tan. These are the Inner Banks, a sheltered system of islands, rivers, creeks, bays, inlets and peninsulas that spread across the North Carolina coast like an irregularly woven fisherman's net. This is where the Appalachian waters filter into into the Sound before finally losing themselves in the Ocean. This is a place that feels as far from the center of things as you can get and still be able to find a hardware store.

Big River, by R. Taylor Monk

The Inner Banks are our new secret spot. Now and going forward, this will be our place for going deeper, for thinking and meditating, for writing, for the solitary thinking work that can't seem to get done  even in quiet Piedmont. Milestone, where our place is, is further away from New York City than the map shows, and if the end of the world is today, I am glad to be here at land's end to greet it.

Quick investigation reveals that the Inner Banks are mostly inhabited by Carolinians, the majority of them farming and fishing people of humble means who are permanent residents. Even the seasonal and sporting folk that come here are mostly from the Carolinas, and they have their pleasure boats docked in marvellous, hidden marinas that are tucked up into the land like watery diverticula on the Big River. Houses and cabins are passed from generation to generation. 

Here people of any sort are blessedly few. Milestone, with its stretches of white sand river beaches, twisty live oaks and wind-tortured pines has a population of only 300 or so souls, and no town center. Just inland, Bethany Crossroads shelters 556 men, women and children in its piney groves and extensive tilled fields, and it lies along a curvy stretch of paved Croatan Indian trail that features five blood-curdling turns and at least as many small, private cemeteries. There is one market in Bethany Crossroads, one restaurant, one charter school, one post office and three churches of different denominations. In these parts, the love of God and guns is great.

Milestone is at land's end, and is part of an extensive and economically poor county that boasts only two traffic lights. All we have here is the ferry launch, a locksmith, a marine engineer's shop, a bait and tackle shop, a brick town hall that looks like somebody's granny's house, and a boarded-up commercial building on our corner that used to be a gas station but more recently was The Sunset Café. There's a country club here that appears to be the preserve mostly of folks from the bigger cities inland. And there are some summer camps in Milestone, too, but they sit silent and empty most of the year. In short, for most of the calendar year, we are among the very few people not from here that can find any reason to come to Milestone at all. Now you know about as much about the place as I do, which isn't much. We're new here. We'll learn.

The Lighthouse is my name for our place because it sits high on a bluff overlooking a sandy beach at a bend in the Big River which has the distinction of being the widest stretch of river in North America. Our place is tower-like, and therefore enough like a real lighthouse to warrant the name, and anyway I always wanted to live in a lighthouse since I was small. I like to turn our balcony light on at night and pretend that passing sailors are comforted and kept safe by the small, yellow lamp. From our high perch we also overlook the Milestone Ferry, and our days pass to the rhythm of its comings and goings and the thrumming of the big diesel engine which starts up at 5:30 in the morning and goes quiet just past midnight.  If it weren't for the activity at the ferry and the occasional private plane buzzing low overhead to the tiny airport across the river at Sandy Point, there would be little noise here at all except the nearly constant blowing of the wind. 
Soldier and Guardian Angel from the art bins at
Lowes, downeast, NC.

Advent is upon us, and today is the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. The last time FF and I greeted the end of the world it was in a Greek Diner in Virginia Beach, before Dog came to live with us. This time we will greet the apocalypse resting and doing the solitary work of introspection that the season requires. 

The end of the world came early last week for a classroom full of children and their teachers in Sandy Hook, CT, and it made me so sad and tired inside just thinking of the fear and the sorrow and the hot gunfire, and the incomprehensible coldness inside of some people.  The end of the world comes every day for around 150,000 people by various means both natural and unnatural, but another 220,000 are born, too. So in the long, long life of the Big River, perhaps we people seem rather like an itch it can't seem to get rid of, always more of us creeping up on its shores. Are there already too many of us human beings? And has the tipping point been reached at which our sheer numbers, arrogance, evil ways and failure to grasp our correct place in universe has shifted the planet irrevocably in the direction of real apocalypse? If we have no mercy for each other, what mercy can we expect of God and Nature?

Dog has no existential questions that I am aware of. FF and I each ponder our own questions, those matters of identity and purpose that sometimes occupy the minds of people who have passed the half century mark and think perhaps a tad too much. At the Lighthouse we are companionable and unintrusive. He writes over there, I write over here. Dog, sensibly, sleeps.

FF and I are older now, but our species is still so very new. The Big River is old. All that lives and breathes on these shores even since the heydays of the Croatan and Lumbee nations is just a speck of dust in the eye of the Big River. Births, deaths, loves, losses, suffering and joy, all those things that are big to us now are trivial and unimportant to the river. For it, there is only water moving from the mountains to the ocean. For it, there is no search for meaning. And we human creatures who fuss and bother about our houses, boats, families, money, guns, religions and existential questions are as gnats to the Big River which is eternal and imperturbable.

During  Advent I like to face my search for purpose head on, and while I sort through what I have done and what I have left undone, and the Big River is never far from my sight. Even at 52,  I wonder what I should become and while I wonder, the river is there. While I struggle to write these sentences, to make sense, the river is there. And if I were to truly model myself on the Big River, perhaps I would never write another word. What if I were to find my own ocean and pour myself into it again and again? Is it possible for a woman to become like a river? 

Last night there was a storm. The wind blew hard, and the rain pelted the Lighthouse in buckshot sheets.  The river doesn't mind heavy weather and it keeps on rolling along. But FF and I huddled together last night with Dog curled up at the foot of the bed as the temperature dropped and the wind raised its voice to a howl, and we registered with mild trepidation each tremor that passed through the Lighthouse's wooden beams.  We just held each other quietly in the darkness, waiting for the storm to pass, waiting for the sky to clear, waiting for the sun to come out again.


Madwoman with a Laptop said...

Lovely post. We are about to head out for Christmas with family and New Year's Eve on Lake Michigan. I love places like that in the offseason -- It's all Inner Banks, which is a fine way to bring in a new year.

Another cool thing about having a place called the Lighthouse is that you can always be thinking about and planning to go to the lighthouse when you are not there, which is a nice bit of Woolfian delight to have in one's life.

Warm wishes to you and yours.

Dorothy Potter Snyder said...

Dear Madwoman,

Thank you for your comment. I count on people like you, who are few and precious, to understand the ideas hiding shyly behind the text. I am honored by your visit here, and I also wish you the joy of the season, from our Inner Bank to yours.

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