Who was Cassandra?
In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters
of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo
loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed
that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow
Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well,
you know what happened.
the cassandra pages
words, pictures, and a life
Monday, February 28, 2005
If you didn't know it already, Cassandra is a WILD THINKER...thanks to Hank Green at Wild Thoughts for publishing one of my essays today. I'm honored to be in such fine company.
Kurt has written a fine post on sex and American society, and it looks like there will be a very good discussion (especially if you all go over there and comment!)
My most beautiful experience today was visiting the vernacular body and listening to elck reading an essay by dale. (Scroll down to the end of the entry for the audio link.) Nothing I could offer here this evening would come close; please go there and enjoy.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Back in Montreal. It was a beautiful clear day, and we ran up quickly on the interstate, with the sun setting over our left shoulders, turning the Adirondacks blue and the long sliver of lake Champlain into silver, while the pink light shone through J.s white beard. The fields below St. Albans were a perfection of untracked snow, bearing long dark blue shadows from the hedgerows, and after we crossed the border, onto the flat flat plains, the sun set for real in a blaze of gold and rose behind the rows of poplars and silhouetted silos full of their winter hoard of dried corn.
From the Pont Jacques-Cartier, the city was like a starfield. Onto Lorimer, past the hydroponic gardening store, the little depanneurs, the still-bustling traffic: the relentless and incredible reality of the city, going on and on in spite of our absence. Into our cold apartment; a drink of water for the plants, spaghetti sauce into the microwave; a little pot of Arabic coffee, two clementines. A sigh.
Friday, February 25, 2005
My parents sent me a package recently; I was in Montreal when it arrived here in Vermont and my neighbor kindly brought it in from the porch. Mom and Dad had said it wasn't perishable, but maybe wouldn't like sitting out in the freezing cold. I wondered what it could be.
When I opened the cardboard packing box, I thought I saw wood, but then I realized what I was seeing was a wooden-colored plastic box, about 18 inches long. I knew immediately what it was, and was completely surprised. Opening the latches on the case, lined inside with dark red velvet, I saw the shine of bright silver. My eyes filled with tears. Then I shook off the emotion and quickly pulled out the three parts and put them together. A flute!
My own old flute, that I played just about every day from fourth grade through high school, was an Armstrong - a sturdy student flute that had a good tone and a pleasing weight in my hands. My parents had bought it and a stack of music for $90 from my piano teacher; it had been her daughter's. I played it in my school's excellent band for many years, took it to college and played it occasionally, although by then I was starting to go back to the piano. After college I rarely picked up the flute, although I brought it with me when I moved to New England.
When my cousin's daughter decided she wanted to learn an instrument, her father asked me if she could borrow my flute; their family was short on funds for the instrument rental. I was a bit reluctant but said yes; music had been so important to me that I wanted to make sure E. could have the same chance. I sent my flute back home. Within a month I got a phone call - something had happened, the flute was gone, it had been "stolen" or "lost" from the band room. E., who was painfully shy, didn't make the call herself; as usual, her father covered for her. He was sorry, but there was no offer of replacing it, and my insurance didn't cover that situation. I felt pretty bad about it, but reconciled myself - I hadn't been playing, it was gone, that was that. It was just "a thing", I told myself, like the many other things I had lost in my divorce a few years before, and the best way to deal with its loss was to let it go and concentrate on non-attachment.
When I lifted this flute, a Gemeinhardt, from its velvet case and put it together, it had been at least twenty-five years since I'd played. I tried a few notes, a scale - it was pretty bad. But after fifteen minutes of fooling around, I was less appalled and more amused - the fingerings were still automatic, the breathing familiar, and there was even an occasional beautiful note. I was very touched that my parents had found this in an auction and bought it for me, and I was pleased to think I could take an instrument with me to Montreal; even if I wasn't playing seriously, it could be a meditative and happy break in my day.
What surprised me the most was the feeling of having the flute in my hands. It felt so - natural. I suppose when you've held and used something so much - especially something delicate and fragile, but that's also by definition an extension of your body - you develop a hand-object relationship that becomes instinctive. I hadn't held or played a flute for all those years, and yet my body knew just what to do with it. How strange, and how wonderful.
In the back of my music closet, behind the vinyl, I found a stack of old music: Handel sonatas, Bach, Faure. I play the piano much better now, and I recorded a few accompaniments to play along with. I've no illusions of playing the flute especially well again, and I don't have the time or energy to devote to it, but it's making me happy, and bringing back a rush of memories of a much-younger self; compressing time, and erasing years.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
BAD NEWS, GOOD NEWS
I was very disappointed, but not surprised, to see tonight that the Anglican primates (38 archbishops from the world's provinces) meeting this week in Northern Ireland have issued a communique asking for the American and Canadian churches to "voluntarily withdraw" from a major joint body, the Anglican Consultative Council, between now and 2008, the next scheduled meeting of the Anglican church at large (the Lambeth Conference.)
What does that mean? It means that those two institutions are, in effect, no longer full members of the Anglican Communion. It means that the work of the Eames Commission (the Windsor Report) was largely wasted. It means that the traditionalists, led by the ultra-conservative African bishops, have basically prevailed. It means that Archbishop Rowan Williams has failed to provide the strong forward leadership many of us had hoped he would, caving in instead to the numerical majority, rather than following his own already-stated moral principles of inclusion. And it means that the Anglican Communion will probably split, and as far as I'm concerned now, that's fine.
There is no reconciliation possible when one party obviously has never had any intention of allowing anything other than its own position to prevail. The North American churches said clearly, "We are at a different place culturally; all we ask is that your respect us as we respect you; let's work together on the concerns that we share, which are so much more important for all of humanity." We have agreed for years to ignore African cultural practices, such as polygamy, which are not approved by the Church at large but continue to be practiced within African Anglicanism. But none of that mattered; tonight Primate Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the leader of the opposion, reportedly held a victory celebration. So perhaps it's time to walk our own path. I am only sorry that other western churches, especially the British one, don't have the courage to immediately join us. And I very much hope that both the Canadians and the Americans will stick to their courageous positions, and not backtrack in favor of the preservation of the institution, now that a split seems inevitable.
Meanwhile, if anyone would like a closer look at the "demon" in the eye of the hurricane, here is an excerpt from Bishop Gene Robinson's pastoral letter from this month's issue of the New Hampshire Diocese's Episcopal News. On the cover of the newspaper was a new logo, showing stylized hands holding a flame. It replaces a former logo, which Gene describes below:
I've been thinking about our own symbols here in the Diocese, and what we want to be communicating, to our own members as well as to the world. The symbol that appears on every piece of stationery, the doors of the Diocesan House, the New Hampshire Episcopal News, and every publication of our diocese is our coat of arms/shield. It is the face we give to the world.
Perhaps you've never given it much thought, but what does our coat of arms say about us to the world? In a time of war, our "face" to the world has arrows and a sword. In a time when we believe the Bishop to be a servant of the people, our shield displays a mitre bejeweled with precious stones. In an age when people are starving the world over, and the gap between rich and poor becomes greater every day, our "face to the world" looks like the coat of arms of a wealthy family. In these times which beg for our self-sacrificing love in the Name of Jesus, there is little in this coat of arms to communicate our warmth, our respect, and our love for all of God's children.
(he goes on to describe the new logo and what it symbolizes)...
Of course changing the logo from a bejeweled coat of arms to a pair of loving hands won't automatically make us the servant community Christ calls us to be. We have to work at that every single day. But the change might better remind us and signal to the world that our calling - and our intention - is to be God's loving hands in the world, empowered by the Spirit of the one who first loved us.
By all means, let's kick this guy out. He sounds really dangerous.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005 "May you live until the word of your life is expressed"
I woke this morning from a strange and disquieting dream that seemed influenced by the film "Burnt by the Sun"; I remember only the final scene of the dream, in which I saw a figure with an indistinct head walking on a downhill path through tall grasses. Suddenly a huge orange orb, made of some deeply-crinkled substance like those fold-out paper wedding bells or balls that are sold as party decorations, but more irregular, like a giant hornet nest, floated ominously and unstoppably down the path toward the walking person - and I knew that they would be annihilated by it.
I spent the next half hour lying in bed thinking about that movie and the end-time Russia it depicted - the country life of brief transcendent summers, jam and bread, vodka, men in white linen and women in white lace, little girls with hair ribbons at their temples. I thought about the epilogue to that movie; what happened to the general's wife and his daughter after his execution. Maybe I have been thinking about Stalinist Russia since seeing (yes, this is how my convoluted mind works) Julie Christie playing - yes - a grandmother in "Finding Neverland" last week. Or maybe it has been from living in a snowy, far northern city, with its slanting winter light and greyness punctuated by the occasional bright, knife-sharp day.
So I was happy this morning, and not altogether surprised, to find a rare new post from Idle Words, this time about a recent experience of reading Pushkin's Little Tragedies. I won't give away Maciej's wonderful story-telling, but just encourage any of you who care about Russian literature or the Russian language, or who enjoy good writing about writing and writers, to take a look.
My early-morning spin through the blogosphere gave me several more gifts, also on the theme of finding happiness despite obstacles of the world's or our own making (Pushkin, for example, was stuck in the country, prevented from reaching his fiancee by an outbreak of plague). Here is a beautiful post from elck, about finding joy, and here is another from Jake, following a workshop with author/priest/anorexia survivor Margaret Bullit-Jonas about the necessity of discovering our heart's desires, in which she asked participants to reflect on the post title, above. Jake ends with a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
There's a large food court in the Eaton Center, in the underground city, and we often go there for lunch after going to church at the cathedral on Sunday morning. There's just about every kind of food one could imagine there, from pizza to pad thai. We had spicy Thai food today, and took our trays to a quiet part of the court, which wasn't crowded anyway, near this old gentleman who was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, all with his hat and leather gloves still on. On our other side was a delicate brunette beauty, reading a book and eating a small bowl of Tonkinese soup, and beyond the old gentleman was a family - grandmother, father, mother and baby. While the father held the laughing baby, the mother spooned food into its mouth and sang (in English, of course)"Old MacDonald had a Farm."
Today we headed back down to Vermont, arriving at our house around 4:30 pm after driving through a snowstorm and a pretty intense wind. Our time in Montreal was content and productive: we got a lot of professional work done, and finally, with the help of some encouraging friends (you know who you are), I got back to working on my book. I realized I was scared, after nearly three months of not touching it, to pick it up again - would it seem like a total mess? Would I be overwhelmed with the amount of work left to do? Would it read badly? I gathered my courage, spent one whole day going through what I had written so far, taking careful notes, and then began writing. And I'm happy to report that it's not as daunting as I thought, and actually the time away gave me some needed perspective; I was able to see some structural problems that had been bothering me and figure out a way around them, and I also realized I could cut a whole section I had thought was necessary - it simply isn't. I feel so much better.
We're also making more friends. We had friends over for dinner on two nights, and we were invited out to someone else's house on another. All of that was just great; happy times, good food and conversation, people we liked very much. (It's a little tiring - people are just getting going here at midnight. Saturday night we went to bed at 2:00 pm; our whole schedule, especially on weekends, is completely different in the city.)
The possibility of great variety - what J. calls "bandwidth" - is part of what I find so compelling about living there. Yesterday morning we went to the cathedral, where the choral mass setting was a sublimely beautiful misse breve for treble voices by Gabriel Faure. Instead of a sermon, and as part of a study series for Lent, there was a very moving video, from the Canadian Anglican church's global relief fund, about AIDS in Africa. Afterwards, talk with new friends there about all sorts of topics - from life in Montreal's gay community to the complicated bureaucracy of the French hospital system.
We came home, worked, had dinner, began packing for our trip today, and then at 9:30 pm went to Cinema du Parc to see "Inside Deep Throat", a new documentary about the famous porn movie (shot for a cost of $25,000, it eventually grossed over $600 million), the morality war it ignited in the United States, what happened to its stars and director, and where the "sexual revolution" has ended up today. It was an excellent documentary which explores past and current American history and culture: the rise of the Religious Right and southern indignation at all matters sexual; free speech, government and censorship; personal styles of self expression; the way crime seems to inevitably follow money; the sad and often tragic lives of the people who get caught in the middle. And it also took an ironic look back at the strange cleavage that happened in the late 1970s and 1980s between the movement for women's sexual liberation for women, and the rise of a particular strain of humorless feminism which, although it was crucial in giving many of us the equality we enjoy today, was also a precursor to our stifling political correctness. The film includes interviews with all sorts of people who saw it all unfold - Helen Gurley Brown, Harry Reems, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Erica Jong, the late Linda Lovelace and her family, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer... the film's director, the Federal prosecutor who went after it, movie theater owners...I wonder what one of today's young people would think of all this: does it look like insanity to them, or a progression? As Dick Cavett says in the film, isn't it amazing that a sexual act that turned an entire nation inside out is now not even considered to be real sex by many young people?
Friday, February 18, 2005
A DIFFERENT WORLD
If anyone thinks a different kind of world is impossible, take a close look at this picture. It was taken today at Montreal's Musee d'art contemporain. When we arrived, this class from a local elementary school was just coming into the museum for a couple of hours of group workshops with a resident artist. I noticed that the students were so diverse it was almost a cliche - black, white, brown, Asian - and with teachers to match. But what was even more exciting to me was to see that the kids were close friends across those ethnic and racial divides - a white girl with blonde braids was arm-in-arm with one of these Muslim girls - and so on. Everyone was chattering together in French as they headed toward the bright classroom.
We checked our coats and bags and went to the exhibition we wanted to see (interestingly enough, a large retrospective installation of the work of South African artist William Kentridge, whose amazing animated charcoal drawings are as dark a window onto the world's problems as these kids were light). Afterwards we came back downstairs, and there were the kids again, teeming around the lobby as the curators proudly hung the product of their day - the exuberant, bright, joyful mural you can see in the photograph. It's actually a collection of big square canvases, put together; I loved it and so did everyone else.
"Did you make this?" I asked. "Yes!" they said, happily, while the resident artist beamed, camera in hand, and curators hung proper signs on the wall next to the mural, telling exactly who had made it.
Art didn't bring these kids together - they were friends before they ever walked into that museum. But it sure gave them a way to express themselves, and to work together to create something that - to their surprise, I think - was giving a roomful of friends and strangers a lot of happiness.
Lest more people think I am in favor of fox hunts, please read the comments thread.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
A warm blogosphere welcome to Jean, a familiar and thoughtful presence in the comments threads here, who has started her own blog. Congratulations and best of luck, Jean! I'll look forward to reading you.
We called on Monday evening to see how my father-in-law was doing. I could overhear him saying that it had been the first day in ages when he hadn’t been in any pain at all. “I don’t know what it means,” he said, “because nothing else has changed. But I’ve been telling everybody. I tell them it’s the calm before the storm!” I heard them both laugh. J. talked for a while longer and then passed me the phone.
“Hello, my dear!” he said, enthusiastically.
“Hello!” I said. “So, will you be my Valentine?”
He laughed. “Well, you’re going to have to get in line. I have so many Valentines today! I gave away all my remaining orchid blossoms but one, and oh, the ladies were so happy! When they see it’s an orchid, they think you’ve given them something really precious.” This is all so ironic; I doubt he ever gave his own wife flowers except for the bouquets he always brought home after conducting funerals, which were not exactly received with delight. Nor was he a womanizer. But he always had charm, and a keen sense of what people outside the family wanted him to say; if it suited his purposes, he’d say it, and then relate the story with a certain contempt later on. There was an element of that in his story of the orchid-giving, but something has changed since his wife died; the gift-giving to these fellow-residents of the retirement home now is more of an exchange, and more sincere. He wants and needs affection, and knows it, and the gestures are becoming more childlike and more genuine.
“Well, that’s great,” I said. “You’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that orchid plant! But can I still be your Valentine?”
“I only gave away three, and the Qu’ran says I can have four wives. You’re used to Islam, so if that’s OK with you you can be the fourth.”
I laughed; he never ceases to amaze me. “OK,” I said. “I can handle it.”
He paused for just a split second before replying. “Of course, if I were Mohammed, I’d be allowed seven!”
After Dinner, Rain
Apples, a pear; an empty wineglass on the wiped table; spectacles, a pen.
After working diligently all day, while cars sped through the puddles on the street outside, we bundled up and walked up rue Rachel to the Portugese section to pick up some grilled chicken for dinner. There was light snow falling, so light it was forming delicate drifts against the curb separating the bike path from the sidewalk. "It's not so cold," said J., and then we came around into the wider part of the street and were hit by a blast of strong wind. I felt the warmth begin to leach out of me, but it felt so good to be outside and moving after a day inside, ied to the computer. We walked past the fire station; past the closed corner cafe where the sturdy wooden chairs were piled on top of the tables; the yarn store with two grey, cabled heavy wool sweaters hung in the windows; the block of fancier restaurants where dressed-up Valentine couples sat studying their menus, and the cheaper bars where younger couples entered from the street, slipping against each other and laughing.
The wind blew harder as we headed up the hill and along the slippery pavement in front of Eglise St. Jean-Baptiste. Tiny pellets of ice bit into our faces. We made light of it with little remarks: "This jacket is really warm." "It's not nearly as cold as that night with D. and G." The typical cold-weather encouragement wasn't really necessary; I was happy, eagerly peering into the restaurants, the closed shops of children's clothing, consigned men's wear, the Portugese travel agency with its posters for Cuba and the Caribbean. J. squeezed my hand. "You're a good sport," he said.
"But I love it," I replied. "You know that."
Anyone else would think we were crazy; we've voluntarily moved to this, paid good money to live in a place where the Arctic constantly reminds us of its proximity; where the snow building up on your boots causes you to slip slightly a hundred times on a long walk but you don't even notice, it's just part of the rhythm, the stuttery dance of winter.
We reached our destination: a bakery and butcher shop with a grill in the back. They were still open but a girl with a red heart painted on her cheek was washing down the counters and setting the wooden stools upside down on top; the bread bins were empty but chocolate cakes and little lemon and almond tarts lingered in the bakery case, and beneath the cash registers lay a mound of snowy white meringues.
We went to the short-order window and asked for some chicken and frites - the home-cut French fries that were frying in big vats of oil beyond the wood-fired grill. A strong, sinewy Portugese woman was taking the orders. She looked at us with sparkling, sharp eyes; she could have been my age, or ten years older or younger; she wore a white butcher's apron over a black shirt open at the throat, where a gold chain and a heavy gold cross hung against her weathered, sun-darkened skin; behind her a young man tended the grill and fished huge baskets of fries out of the oil. The day's menu was written in Portugese and French on a whiteboard above the order-window. J. asked for a half poulet and frites. She explained in French, with a smile, flicking the paper tacked to the window edge in front of her, that the chicken on the grill was for a pick-up order and she could only give us the smaller pieces that were left. We shrugged and smiled; it was fine. She packed our order, topping it with a piquant sauce, smiled contentedly at us again.
J. tucked the hot package of fragrant chicken beneath his coat and we started back. It was warmer going home, away from the wind; we walked briskly and hungrily. On the corner of St. Denis the mannequins at Le Chateau shivered in their flimsy flowered dresses; the shoe store advertised all red shoes on sale, 50 % off. At the corner of Christophe-Colombe, two fire trucks tore out of the fire station, sirens blaring.
The wind had died down a little by the time we got home. We rushed into the apartment, peeling off scarves, gloves, hats, parkas, one layer of sweaters. I poured some red wine and turned on the radio while J. set the table and the room filled with the delicious scent of the grilled chicken, oil, spices, potatoes, and we settled down to our winter picnic.
TYMOSCHENKO HIGH HEELS
Looking through the recent Google searches that had referenced my blog, I saw the above headline. The CassandraPages reference was to a recent post about a woman on the Montreal street wearing "pointy white high heels", and another unrelated mention i made of Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. But when i followed the number-one hit for this headline, I found this article from Ukrainian Pravda about our braided heroine and her "style" which was amusing both for its English translation and the very different (and, I thought, rather refreshing) way of reporting about a female political celebrity.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Yesterday, getting ready for dinner guests who are coming tonight, we went out to the Jean-Talon market to check out the new building and get some vegetables, and then went on to Adonis, the Middle Eastern supermarket, for the rest of our provisions. But before shopping, we grabbed a bite to eat at Motta, near the southeastern corner of the Jean-Talon market. It's our favorite Italian deli. You can buy pizza by the slice (big rectangular pieces, with a thick but light crust, loaded with many savory toppings, from fresh spinach to artichokes to prosciutto) and have it heated up there, with a cup of espresso and maybe a little something sweet for dessert from the bakery counter. There's also a huge assortment of olives, cheeses, breads, deli meats, fresh pasta sauces by the jar, pasta, oils and condiments, and the most dazzling array of antipasto and Italian side dishes - freshly fried zucchini fritters, delicately stuffed peppers, veal scallops in a light tomato sauce, salads of every description and color - I've ever seen.
I waited for J. to bring our lunches to the table in the back of the restaurant, and watched a handsome young Italian guy and his two friends happily devour pizza, three cannoli apiece, coffee, and a huge sugar-drizzled cinnamon pastry ring they cajoled the deli waitress into heating up. Beyond them, another table was filled with a group of uniformed schoolgirls in Black Watch plaid pleated kilts, white blouses, and navy sweaters, out for a pizza lunch with their svelte, stylish teacher - for what occasion, I wondered? In the meantime, at the counter, more slices were ordered by Africans, a Vietnamese woman, an old Italian couple, two Asian teenagers...
Thursday, February 10, 2005
ASH WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS
In the context of Lent, which began yesterday, I’ve been thinking in particular about two recent posts I’ve read, one from Father Jake Stops the World, and another from Chris Clarke at Creek Running North. Fr. Jake wrote about James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, a work which attempts to describe spiritual development in “stages”. The post wondered if we might use those different stages of development – loosely defined as moving from a self-centered, self-serving focus to a spiritually-centered compassion for community and “the other” - to explain why religious fundamentalists and liberals seem to either shout at, or talk past one another; i.e., different people at different stages can’t hear one another. Chris’s post took off from the recent Ward Churchill controversy to examine the whole “liberal” label; he posits that it now means something entirely other than “leftist”, and that many people who describe themselves as liberal are in fact very far indeed from the values and beliefs that have traditionally characterized the left. I agree with him.
How to relate these two discussions, one seemingly so religious, and one so political?
In the discussion on Jake’s site, several commenters pointed out that those who focused on “individuality” or “individualism”, and judged it badly, were missing the point of Fowler’s “stages”, and I think that’s correct. I haven’t read Fowler, but I think he is using the term “individuative” to mean the ability to examine oneself and one’s beliefs apart from belonging to an institutionalized belief system where comfort is derived from everybody believing and saying pretty much the same thing. Assuming this is a good thing, how might we get there?
Many belief systems include some sort of meditation/self-reflection that is aimed, ultimately, at transformation of the individual from, perhaps, (don’t shoot me here) “unaware, spinning, and ego-driven”, to “more aware, more peaceful, and more outward-motivated”. (Some, but by no means all, Christian teaching has this as an important element – I could write for another year about that topic but I’ll spare you; please spare me the inevitable criticisms of much of modern Christianity too: you're right.) Most people begin on a spiritual path hoping for “help” or “relief” from problems, sometimes specific ones of a personal nature, sometimes simply a vague disquiet and unhappiness. Some discover, after a time, or after jumping around from one system or teacher to another, that the quick fix is a) not easy or even possible to attain, and b) not really what it’s about. And some, of course, drop out at that point. Others are intrigued enough to go deeper. If they do, there will often be an identifiable, gradual progression, similar to what Fowler describes – throughout life - toward greater self-awareness of oneself as both greatly blessed and suffering; awareness of that suffering as a shared human condition; the awakening of compassion and a softening of judgmentalism; greater acceptance of one’s personal difficulties and relinquishment of personal desires; and increasing desire to be of service to others and to the world; i.e. selflessness.
Clearly, people within any community – whether we’re talking about a church, a sangha, a larger grouping such as the Anglican Communion, or the supposedly secular political society of the U.S. – are going to be at different stages in how they see themselves in relationship to the world and what they want or think they deserve out of life. People also are always going to be at different stages in their need to say “my way is the right way”; they will have different levels of need for proving their “rightness”; and different levels of tolerance for what are acceptable ways to demonstrate and enforce that self-righteousness.
Certainly, communal societies act differently when making decisions than those societies where the individual and his/her “rights of self-determination” are considered paramount. But as one commenter at Jake’s pointed out, it is entirely possible to be a pretty self-realized individual and at the same time to be very compassionate and highly aware of one’s responsibility to the world. In a moral context, let alone a religious one, free will is understood as something quite different from “I’ll do whatever I want, and to hell with the rest of you”.
On to Chris’s post. As he wrote, most American liberals today have learned how to quote chapter and verse from the book of political correctness: they can talk the talk, and they can pretend to walk the walk, but for the most part they are as entrenched in American capitalism as anyone. And when the chips are down, they vote to confirm Condi; some of them – incredibly - even vote to confirm Gonzales; they vote to appropriate massive sums for war; they spout pro-environmental rhetoric but live consumptive lifestyles; they say they care about the poor in America and in the rest of the world but make lifestyle changes on the level of buying equal-exchange coffee to serve at dinner parties to which their one black acquaintance or token artist may be invited. This is not opposition to the status quo – it is the status quo.
I think that American liberalism is just as much a part of the problem we’re facing as a country as conservatism, mainly because it masquerades as something different from the Right while, through good intentions coupled with inaction, serving the same master and perpetuating a destructive and injust system. Liberalism does very little in the way of true opposition, the goal of which I would define as bringing about transformation – this time, of society. Here, as for the disenchanted spiritual seeker, true transformation is seen as just too risky; the cost too high.
Chris quoted Martin Luther King on this subject, and it’s worth repeating:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. King’s words were painfully reminiscent of the “thank you so much for doing this, it’s just not my style but it’s great to see you here every week” comments I heard during a year of publicly opposing Bush’s policies and the run-up to the Iraq war. I’ve heard the same thing from the same liberal, upper-middle class, university constituency about my work in interfaith dialogue, Middle East understanding, or gay rights. People say, quite sincerely, “it’s so wonderful what you’re doing” but wouldn’t be caught dead actually having a conversation with a Muslim, or inviting them to their house. The same thing is heard by those who work with the poor, or fight for funding for the arts, or the environment – the list goes on. If you allow it, you may become a “pet” for those who may share your political concerns and want to look good, but want somebody else to do the hard and dirty work, the work that may get criticized or carry personal risk, the work that is harder than writing a check, the work that literally puts a person and their beliefs on the line. The difference between writing a check to the soup kitchen, and serving in it day after day, having real relationships with people who live from hand-to-mouth and then facing yourself and your full refrigerator every night, is vast. I’ve only done this occasionally, but it changes you. I spent twelve years attending a real public school where many of the kids were extremely poor; it changes you. But our society isn’t moving in that direction; it’s moving toward gated communities and homogenous towns and churches and social groups, and many of the people inside them are so-called liberals.
In the end, it does come down to moral and ethical choices. A priest who I greatly admire puts it bluntly for his congregation: “Being truly religious people means that we must live in such a way that the poor can live.” That means one thing: we have to change.
What’s the real obstacle? We’re not ready. Not enough people are ready to look up and see the interconnections; they’re scared, they don’t want to lose anything; they want protection. So we are at different stages, whether we’re talking about spiritual or societal maturity, and the numbers of people who are willing to make real sacrifices at the risk of potentially alienating their friends and relatives, or are willing to devote significant chunks of their time, money, and energy into working for change, are actually much, much smaller than the perceived 50% divide in the voting public. And it doesn’t do any good to shout at each other. I’m afraid it’s a question of keeping small fires lit in a group of separate caves, trying to support the other lamp-holders when we find them, and doing what we can to work around the system and keep the idea and hope of real change alive during a most dismal and discouraging time. Each person who sees this needs to do whatever they can to make their corner of the world a better and more compassionate place. I’m convinced that people learn and change by example much more than they do by logic and argument.
During Lent this year, I’m going to be reflecting on how I can do better myself, because I am painfully aware that every observation and criticism I’ve made in the preceding paragraphs can be applied to me as well. One of the teachings of this sort of spiritual path is that we never arrive at a point where we can afford the luxury of complacency: as my husband and I begin the process of extricating ourselves from a lifetime of obligations, expectations, possessions, and ways of living, toward a simpler life that consumes less, compromises less, and is more compatible with our beliefs, we see just how difficult it is. I know someone who just sold all her possessions and is going to Africa to teach and learn. I couldn’t begin to do something like that, nor would it be right for me or for my family. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try, wherever we find ourselves, to go deeper, to ask harder questions, to stretch more and more.
From an op-ed by Eric Garcetti, who represents the 13th District on the Los Angeles City Council, in the L.A. Times:
President Bush refers to himself as a wartime president, and he has shown resolve not to back down on the battlefield. But the budget he released this week waves a flag of surrender in another war, the 40-year "war on poverty." The budget announces cuts of 28% - or $1.4 billion - from our arsenal of critical social programs. The largest and most vital to Los Angeles is the Community Development Block Grant. As more cities draw on poverty-fighting grants each year, Los Angeles' allocation has steadily decreased, from $88.6 million in 2003 to $82.7 million this year. Under the proposed cuts, our allocation would plummet by at least $15 million. Alongside previously proposed cuts to Section 8 housing assistance, these reductions send a stark message to the country's poor, its elderly and its urban youth: You're no longer our problem...
After a rainy drive, we arrived back in Montreal around 3:00 pm, buying vegetables and fruits on the way in. After unpacking, I sat down with a glass of hot tea and the well-worn copy of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking I'd brought from Vermont - how I enjoy her tart prose! - and then chopped and sauteed onions, celery, a handful of mushrooms, a small zucchini, the end of a cauliflower, and a couple of potatoes for the start of a cream of vegetable soup before heading out into the darkening drizzle.
It was warm enough still to walk with just a scarf on my head; the sidewalks were mostly clear except for a few little lakes where the snow had created a dam. Car headlights shone on the wet pavement and the icy playgrounds and glazed snow piled up near the sides of buildings. More bicycles were out. I passed a tall, longhaired blonde woman in a white coat, stepping daintily in her pointy white high heels and carrying a flowered umbrella. I passed a debonair man in a beret and woolen greatcoat, walking his jaunty dog. An tired, intellectual bohemian in wire-rimmed glasses, a red fringed scarf tied round his neck, picked up his little daughter from the daycare that must continue, after hours, at the neighborhood school.
Darkness, made thicker by the rainy night, fell on the houses and street, while pools of yellow light spilled from the few storefronts that were open. In the fancy hair salon, a trim black-clothed assistant swept dark curls from the floor, moving his broom under the white upholstered chairs in the wide windows. Across the street, a small French restaurant was preparing for the evening: the bartender, his back to the street, polishing glasses; starched white tablecloths on the dozen or so tables; the blackboard of the evening's specials posted by the door.
I stopped at the depanneur to buy a little cream for our soup from the kind Asian owner who was watching ski racing on her television set, across from the cash register above the wine shelves. Then, the bakery. The warm light in the small shop illuminated the glass window-shelves of date bars, sugar-dusted almond croissants, sand-colored tuiles, brownies, and palm-sized sugar cookies, each with a ruby center of raspberry jam. As I approached, a little girl with blonde hair, wearing a dress and fitted woolen coat, bounded down the steps and skipped to her amused, waiting mother, clutching whatever delight she'd been awarded inside. I went in and ordered my mini pain-rustique, a small irregular white loaf, and a whole-wheat loaf encrusted with sesame seeds, the thick crust slashed into diamonds.
When I went out and back down the street, the salon owner had just turned out the lights and was heading for her door. The first group of diners, talking happily, pulled open the door of the restaurant and went in. I hesitated for only a minute, and turned away from home, extending my walk around a few more blocks. It was just too fine, being out, with fresh bread and cream in my backpack, and the glorious rainy night and its life, unfurling.
“I have a very busy week,” my father-in-law announced, landing heavily in his chair in the dining room. “Two things today – you, and I’m giving an Arabic lesson at 2:00. That’s one thing too much!” He laughed. “And tomorrow the principal of the S. school is coming to talk to me. On Thursday, Clara is coming for lunch. I really can only do one thing per day. It’s terrible, but I just don’t have the energy.”
“What’s this person coming to see you about?” we asked.
“About talking to their students about Islam and the Middle East.”
“How did they find out about you?”
“The mother of one of their students is a friend of mine. She brought her daughter to meet me, and the daughter asked me some questions about Islam, and I said I wouldn’t answer because I don’t feel that a little bit of knowledge is a good thing; I told her, ‘if you want to know something, then decide to really know it.’ Apparently she went back to the school and told her teacher what I had said, and they thought that made sense – so they proposed that I come there and give them a series of classes.” He looked up from his chicken broth. “But I think it’s too much. I don’t know if I can do it. We’ll see – they’ll provide transportation, of course.”
We could see the sparkle in his eyes and the gears turning in his head as he thought about it; he had taught in private schools his entire career and had loved it; obviously he wanted to do this – even though he’s refused for months to travel at all, except for one funeral; he won’t even to go to his children’s homes for dinner, five miles away.
“What if the teacher came here and videotaped you talking about the subject?” I asked.
He looked up indignantly. “I have no interest in doing that! It’s the face-to-face contact I want, the conversation!”
“All right, so do it!” J. said, shooting a “you-should-have-seen-that-coming” look at me. “It would be good for you.”
“Yep,” he said, turning back to his soup.
Later we began talking about the Pope – about whom he said several irreverent things -and then he started telling stories about the Orthodox clergy in Damascus. He had grown up in the Christian section, and the largest Orthodox church was nearby, although his family didn’t attend: they were Presbyterian.
“I was quite taken with the Patriarch, as a young boy,” he said. “I liked his robe, of course, and he wore that tall hat” – he motioned well above his head – “and he had a very fine beard. So he was quite imposing. Every day he’d go past our house, and I’d stand in the doorway and wait for him. He liked me, and he’d always give me a blessing by putting his hand on my head, but he refused to let me kiss his hand because he didn’t want to offend my father, who was Protestant.” He laughed and shook his head. “I liked him much better than our minister, who was fat and very full of himself. I don’t know where he had learned theology, but he was very learned, very educated. He had two daughters, one with a name that meant ‘good to talk to’ and the other with a name that meant ‘pretty’ and he’d always walk down the street in between those two girls, one on either side of him.” He imitated him walking down the street, swaying from side to side. “I much preferred the Patriarch.”
“And he was the Patriarch of Damascus?” I asked.
“No, his title was ‘Patriarch of Antioch and All the East’, and his see was in Damascus.”
“Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,” J. repeated, wonderingly.
“Yes,” his father said, matter-of-factly. “Antioch was quite important at one time. Now, if you’re going for coffee, could you get me one of those?” He pointed at the container of yogurt I had just finished. “But only if they have that kind, it had some pieces of fruit in it – what was it?”
After waking up in a terrible mood (I am not at my best first thing in the morning - dragging myself upstairs for breakfast with my parents at my last visit, my father took one look at me and asked, "are you still like that?") I rallied, drank the coffee J. had kindly made for me, got myself somewhat together, and looked in the mirror. What to do today? Now that my hair is getting long again, I put it up on my head a lot. Sometimes I make a French braid or a twist in the back. Sometimes I wear a barrette. But I've been wanting to try making two braids and coiling them over the top of my head. Yesterday's news photos of Yulia Tymoshenko, the new prime minister of the Ukraine, were the inspiration I needed. My mother used to do this for me when I was little; she often wore her hair that way herself.
My hair is just barely long enough, but I managed and...it looked good. J. had been out doing an errand, and when he got back he immediately said, "That looks beautiful." Hair is such a simple thing,and so often mine drives me crazy. But this made me feel pretty all day - what a funny thing.
I'd like to call your attention to an excellent discussion that's going on at Father Jake Stops the World. It's ostensibly about the debate within Christianity over homosexuality, particularly within the Episcopal Church, but the points being raised have much wider application, especially in our American society today: how, and how long, do we engage in debate with those who seem to have no desire to listen to opposing points of view? When we do this, are we "mirroring" the attitudes of our antagonists, and what is that doing to us internally? What models can we use to try to see better the dynamics that are going on, and our own role in them? And, most important to me at least, have we lost sight of our original goals and responsibilities, and if so, how can we get back to them in new and creative ways, perhaps outside the traditional channels? The comment threads have been searching, thoughtful, and very interesting (and that's not a plug for yours truly, who has been weighing in toward the end - I'm merely one of many voices there.)
We were late for our weekly lunch, and all the other residents had already gone into the dining room when I came through the heavy automatic glass doors into the retirement home. My father-in-law was sitting in an armchair, waiting. He smiled, a little faintly, and I immediately began my usual internal assessment – is he paler? weaker? more or less depressed?
“How are you?” I asked, when he didn’t get up. He looked beyond me at the door, and back at me, cocking his head. “How are you?” he asked instead.
“He’s coming,” I said. “He’s just parking the car. I’m fine.” He pushed himself up out of the chair with difficulty. “How are you?” I repeated.
He made a face as if he’d eaten something unpleasant and shook his head. “Not good,” he said. “But I’m here.” He was up by then, and headed laboriously into the dining room, bent-over, leaning on his black-handled cane. He waved the end at me as we rounded the corner, “I’ve reserved our usual table,” and just then J. came up behind him, catching his father’s black shoulder bag in his hand to take to the table.
“Hi Dad!” he said cheerfully.
“Hi!” his father replied, perking up.
We got our lunch at the buffet – chicken and rice soup, plates of salad. It gets harder and harder for my father-in-law to carry the heavy plates of food across the dining room; usually one of us, or one of the staff, gracefully intercept the tipping plate and precarious bowl of soup before there’s an accident. We met him back at the table, where he was already starting in on some chipped beef on toast.
“Ah-ha!” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s one of my favorites. But it’s very fattening.”
“You can afford the calories,” I said, “you’re not eating as much as you used to.”
“I’ve really lost my appetite,” he said, for the umpteenth time. He says whenevr we sit down to eat anything, and it is truly his lament of old age. No one I have ever known in my life enjoyed eating as much as my father-in-law, or managed to put away so much food with such gusto and single-mindedness. It was fun to cook for him, because he’d almost always eat with such pleasure; he was a master of over-indulgence, and then would fast for a day, announcing, “I overindulged, and now I am reducing.”
I don’t know whether it was his medications, or just a digestive system that wore out, but a few years ago he really did lose his appetite. He complained of a metallic taste in his mouth and of food that “didn’t taste”. Part of it was a way of saying that he didn’t like the bland food at the retirement home and missed his wife’s skillful and delicious Middle Eastern cooking. But when we’d bring treats or home-cooked food, it was the same – he was appreciative, but something had changed; the food didn't taste as good, and he didn't want much.
This day he was subdued, not talking much as he concentrated on cutting his toast with the side of a fork held in a weak and shaky hand. His eyes weren’t working well, he said, and the new glasses were “no good, no better than the old ones.” “The doctors say they can’t do anything for my eyes,” he reported. “and then they shrug and say, ‘what do you expect at 95?’” He grinned and waved his fork in the air emphatically, “I tell them 'I want to see!' Oh well.” He went back to his toast. “Forget about it.” I got up to get some tea. “Bring me some yogurt – the kind with fruit at the bottom – and a raisin cookie, please,” he asked.
“So you’re eating this kind of yogurt now?” J. asked.
“Yes. That woman over there” – he gestured with his spoon – “she is my age and she eats yogurt every day and she has tons of energy.” “She has all sorts of food theories,” he added. “She puts together the most inedible combinations of things!” When he finished he pushed his chair back and looked across the table. “In Arabic we say this after we eat…” and he recited two lines. “We ate and we didn’t fill our stomachs.”
He laughed and I laughed with him. “What does that really mean?” I asked.
“It’s just a comment on how the Arab feels about food. We’re never finished eating!”
He can still read for a while, until his eyes get tired and blurry, and some days are better for that than others. My sister-in-law has also been enlarging articles to make it easier for him. When we got back up to his apartment, after lunch, he settled into his chair and told me to go inspect his orchids. “They look great!” I called from the bedroom.
“Take any New Yorkers you can find,” he said.
“Don’t you want them?” I asked.
“No, they bore me,” he said. “I don’t care anymore, and besides, I can’t read them.”
This bothers me more than anything; he’s always wanted to read and to discuss what he’s read. I can’t stand the idea that he’s giving up, so I encourage him. “Come on,” I said, kneeling on the floor picking up magazines where he’d dropped them in front of his chair. “You’ll want to read the latest one, you always find something you like.” I showed him the latest issue, with a Valentine cover.
“I didn’t get that cover – what is it?” he asked. I studied it and read the title. “It’s supposed to be for Valentine’s day. All these people, and the red lines inbetween them are supposed to be Cupid’s arrows – showing that everybody’s attracted to somebody else.”
“Stupid,” he said, and I laughed – he was right.
'What's this? I asked, pointing at a portable radio and tape player on the floor.
"That tape player only cost $10 - can you believe it? Someone I met brought it to me along with some tapes of famous philosphers discussing their ideas. He thought I'd enjoy it, but I didn't want to listen to that." I knew why, and felt sorry for the poor person and his good intentions. "If I had been one of the people on the panel then I'd have been interested," he said. "But why do I want to listen to other people talking about their ideas, if I can't be part of the discussion? I dont' know what that fellow was thinking. He brought it after only meeting me one time, and I haven't heard from him since." Socrates stood silent on the shelf above my father-in-law's chair.
J. had gone down to the basement to see if a small loveseat in his father’s storage area would work in our apartment, after asking permission. “Use anything there that you want!" his father had said. J. came back up, said he thought it would be very good, and sent me down to see for myself. I took the elevator to the basement, and turned the key in the door marked “Residents' Storage.” It was a concrete-floor room filled with chicken wire cages, closed with padlocks, that ran from the floor to the ceiling. Each cage was about four by six feet wide, and they held odds and ends of clothing, outdoor furniture, wrapping paper, cardboard boxes. “Is this how it ends?” I thought. “Are our lives reduced to this – plastic flowers in an old wastebasket?” I felt enormously sad, and after looking at the sofa quickly shut the door and went back up.
“It’s nice,” I announced, “ but I can’t remember it being anywhere in any of your houses!”
“What does it look like?” my father-in-law asked. We described it – the matching chair is in our apartment in Montreal, and was always in my mother-in-law's apartment - but none of us could remember where it had been. Somehow this shared amnesia seemed to cheer him up, and he started talking more volubly. I told him some stories about my parents and my Iranian friend, who had just had a henna party for her women friends that I’d missed. “Really?” he said, wanting to hear more about it. “Don’t do it!” he cautioned. “It doesn’t wash off, you know!”
The bright afternoon sunlight came in strongly through the balcony door, shining on the blooming red amaryllis and wafting the heady scent of paperwhite narcissus toward our noses. “It’s really very nice here,” I said. “Look at your beautiful flowers. And it’s so warm and sunny.”
He smiled and settled back in his chair. “I’m really very happy here,” he said. “I like the apartment, they take very good care of us, and for the most part, people leave me alone to live as I want. And when I go to bed at night, I am so comfortable.” He recited another Arab proverb, eyes shut, smiling to himself. He opened his eyes and translated. “It means, basically, when you can go to bed at night and shut your eyes and not worry, that is true happiness.” He turned and looked at me directly. “That’s one thing I really don’t do. I don’t worry.”
“That would be wonderful!” I said, very sincerely, thinking of my own restless sleep.
“I’m like the Eskimo,” he said.
“What Eskimo?” J. asked.
“It’s a story. There were some white men who traveled to the arctic and they passed an old Eskimo man sitting alone in the cold. When they came back, he was still there, and they said to him, “It’s cold here, don’t you worry?’ And the Eskimo said to them, “What have I got to worry about? I have a wife in the igloo, and plenty of fish!”
The punch-line was so matter-of-fact, so unexpected, and yet so typical of him that we all burst out laughing. “I have a wife in the igloo and plenty of fish!” he repeated, and we were all still laughing as we said goodbye.
I really enjoyed these excellent photographic portraits by the Finnish artist Pekka Turunen. (There was a sub-theme of wood-stacking that ought to appeal to other, northern winter dwellers.) Via Conscientious.
It's 8:00 pm and I ought to be just revving up for some writing, but in fact I'm fading...drooping...crashing. We've been working really hard and getting too little sleep, and tonight that's catching up with me. The previous few nights have been both short and restless, or interrupted by long sleepless stretches; last night was sound-er, but still too short.
I've been working over the past week on a big, long-term professional project that's becoming increasingly fascinating and challenging and has brought me into deeper contact with some insightful people. The subject, like much of our work over the past ten years, is the reform of the U.S. health care system, and when you talk to dedicated people who are on the ground level of trying to understand and change a huge, complex, broken system like that, it's very interesting. What surprises me lately is how much the top people in this field remind me of the thoughtful, dedicated religious leaders I've known: they too have given their lives to something they see as being of primary importance, and in the process have gained a pretty sharp perspective on human behavior and human needs, and the role of money in both.
I don't think Mr. Bush sees it the same way. Both Leslee and Ernesto have been writing about their perspectives on health care recently too; if it's any comfort at all, there really are people who are trying to understand the dynamics of the system and create change in many different areas, from health care policy to clinical microsystems, from graduate medical education to patient decision-making, from better use of screening to responsible, informed journalism. They admit, though, that true change is going to take a very long time, and may even depend on a collapse of the system as it now exists.
The inequities that exist within the United States are glaring, but when we look internationally the only word that comes to mind is "shameful". On NPR the other day, there was a glowing report about how AIDS was on the brink of being eliminated as a cause of infant death in the United States. What about an entire, other continent where millions of people are dying, and can't even get access to standard AIDS drugs? What about the numbers of children in the world who die daily from malnutrition and diarrhea? How can we rest on our well-fed laurels for even a moment when this is the situation?
But anyway, I was writing about not writing, wasn't I? Today was our weekly lunch with my father-in-law, and what I really want to do is write about that, with greater attention and clarity than I seem to be able to muster tonight. So unless I'm up for a few hours in the middle of the night, check back tomorrow for the latest installment of his story.
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
The drive across south-central New Hampshire to Peterborough is not one I’ve made often. The places I do go – Brattleboro, Vermont, close to the Massachusetts border, or Concord, Manchester and Nashua, New Hampshire, are quickly reached via the two interstate highways that lead out of northern New England toward New York and Boston. But within the mountainous country between the interstates lie forests growing on granite, a few small villages, and a way of life that has all but deserted the places frequented by skiers and tourists.
I left the interstate at North Walpole, passing the tiny one-room post office building, and the red-painted local feed store (“Equine, Livestock, Poultry, Pets) and headed uphill, through snow-filled woods where thin paper birches draw criss-crossing chalk lines against the dark green hemlock. It’s careful, wind-y driving, where one has to watch for deer and ice patches, and the road follows the rocky land rather than being blasted through it. And it’s Frost country, where after a long desolate stretch one comes upon a few houses, a pasture lined with stone walls, an old orchard; and I found myself quoting lines from half-remembered poems.
“I wish Ivy could be here with me, to see what New England is really like,” I thought, until, at the top of the seemingly uninhabited hill, a huge gravel pit suddenly appeared, like a raw grey wound, behind the trees. It reminded me ruefully of the Frost parody: "Whose woods these are I think I know/His house is in the village though/He will not see me stopping here/To chop his woods and shoot his deer…” Frost too had seen more here than the postcards with which his poetry is naively associated; he had his own dark side and saw it reflected in the inhospitable but beautiful land and its taciturn inhabitants.
Nearly twenty years ago, J. and I used to make this drive occasionally to pick up equipment at the home of PC Connection in Marlow, New Hampshire, the next town after Alstead, where, in an isolated community, some enterprising hippies had created one of the first and most successful mail-order computer businesses. It always seemed both incongruous and perfect to pull up to the typical, old, white clapboarded house-plus-shed-plus second shed that was home to the company and leave with a big shiny new computer or printer.
On this day, though, I entered Marlow and left it within the space of a minute or two, and was back in the depths of the forest, driving past the yellow signs warning of “Moose Crossing” or “Drifting Snow”, small green road signs pointing toward “Pitcher Mtn.” or “Ferret Farm Road”, and up to the top of the ridgeline, where the purple mountains suddenly stretched across the horizon beyond a white-blanketed hilltop field and the dark line of the forest at its far edge.
What is it that makes this landscape itself, I wondered. And even that word seems like a misnomer: there is no “scape” to it - or rarely - in the sense of “sweep” or broad vistas; on the contrary, the land is craggy and knarled and closed-in, like an unfriendly fairy-tale forest of unfamiliar yet endlessly repeating themes of dark trees, rocks, snow; you always feel like you’re inside it, not looking at it, except for the rare places where people settled, more than two centuries ago, and a white-steepled church and town hall and a few old houses still nestle like white marbles in the dark-mittened palm of the forest. Is it that, I wondered, those little vestiges of early-settler life, that define this place, with the stone walls running through tall woods that used to be fields? Is it the steamy breath of cows clustered around a water trough? Or the high, forest-rimmed lakes where cold dark water lies in granite basins, and the reed-filled swamps that used to be lakes, and the stands of saplings in swamps on their way to becoming forest?
Not long after moving to New England in the mid 1970s, my then-boyfriend and I were invited to dinner one night in Walpole, by another young couple we’d met in a house rented to nine or ten fuzzy hippies. Jamie and Tom were the gentlest, kindest people imaginable: flower children who dreamed of self-sufficiency and were living as many people did then - on little money and a lot of ingenuity and idealism. That path was perhaps easier in San Francisco than in New Hampshire, in the frozen depths of February. I remember driving that night through these same dark, forbidding woods, up a narrowing dirt road and then another, finding the mailbox with the small sign, leaving our car in pitch-blackness far down the hill, and hiking in carrying a lantern and a stoneware bowl filled with some offering – salad, beans, rice. They lived then in a small one-room cabin, whose light greeted us through the trees from a single window. We tumbled into the warm interior like cattle into a manger, stamping and rubbing; the pot-bellied woodstove took up a good deal of the space, along with the water bottles they had to fill at a spring and lug up to the cabin; a line hung with clothes and jackets; a pile of blankets; a make-shift bed. Jamie had cooked the whole meal on the woodstove – cornbread, probably, and a pot of soup. She had a pet chinchilla, and he had a dog; he did carpentry jobs, she made quilts; they were deeply in love. Like the woods and rocks that surrounded us, in those days it was a theme with slight variations. I remember the warmth of that evening, in the presence of their relationship; I remember being happy, hungry, and then well-fed; it was perhaps one of the last times that life felt simple.
How innocent we were. I thought that as NH 123 finally wound down the other side of the mountains, dropping toward broader, more easily-farmed valleys, like the one where Peterborough is located. Now the fields are giving way to development and there’s evidence of real economic activity. I took it all in reluctantly, still mesmerized by the road I’d traveled. Back in the tiny hill towns, a few people were still living that way -maybe even Jamie and Tom. But I doubted it, and thought of Frost again: “Nothing gold can stay.”