I returned from nearly 3 months in Europe to turn around and go to Colorado for a week of Qi Gong practice with my teacher. I also managed to attend my Aunt’s 80th birthday party in between. A crazy amount of travel.
While in Europe, I was hitting the pause button on the art-making, on the mental momentum of graduate school portfolios, so that I could spend some time re-assessing. I delved into exploring places and volunteering in various meditation programs, as well as doing a lot of my own meditation practice. I visited Vienna, Brussels, Berlin, and Copenhagen, investigating the livability of these places, meeting and making friends, and visiting a few art schools. I also explored with the support of the Shambhala community in Europe some improvisational dance, performance art, and began finding many more connections using my singing voice that I had abandoned for most of the last 30 years. It was a fresh and rich summer, everything you would expect a summer traveling around Europe to be.
Beginning next week I’ll be in NYC for three months. Upstate now at Eric’s, my resting place between places. Both here and the city generally are like my “home turf” where I feel “returned.” In this place, aside from continuing to explore the path to my future through classes at the Art Student’s League and elsewhere, I will be reflecting on what all the travel experiences have produced in my mind.
One very clear message I was receiving over and over is that I should be using my voice – people enjoy hearing me sing, and singing comes naturally to me. Further to that, I made a very strong connection to a women’s singing/performance group in Brussels that I met the director of last spring at Dechen Choling – the group called Patshiva that I posted about on Facebook. What they are doing – polyphonic choral voices performed with movement, contemporary dance, costume, light – is transformative and amazing work. It’s something I’ve looked for my whole life without realizing it. And they have been doing community work as well – a residency in a poorer neighborhood in Strasbourg, and teaching workshops at festivals like the summer festival at Dechen Choling. Empowering women’s voices. There is something very magnetizing happening there. And in Brussels, where they are based, also happen to be two university art schools. Still, I really want to use this return to home turf to give some perspective on everything I have been accumulating by way of “research” this year. I will have some opportunity to do some teaching this fall as well, which also usually helps me process things. Through this stage, my next move will become clearer.
At the moment however it’s Sunday, I’m here in Spencertown for the week. I venture into the basement to swap clothing and encounter again (as I do every time I return) the volumnity of my stuff. All the things I’d pulled out in June to sell now…plus luggage and boxes of practice materials, dharma books, art supplies…all my competing aspirations and artifacts of my nomadic life filling the whole of space. (At least, that’s how it feels). Although I shed a lot of possessions when I moved into storage, and have shed about half my wardrobe since then, there is still too much. I feel overwhelmed by the task of severely editing my possessions to match my current vision of my life.
Which is changing all the time, will change again and again. I’ve enjoyed the lightness and simplicity of living from a suitcase. Being without stuff frees up so much time and mental energy. As soon as I perch somewhere though, things begin to accumulate again. I have a lot of Ratna so it’s inevitable, even as a nomad. (One of the five Buddha families, Ratna appreciates the wealth of the world…and all of its stuff). Then my Vajra Buddha aspect (sees the essence of wisdom apparent in any situation, applies clarity and sharpness) takes a look around and says “enough! Wipe the slate clean!” So I put myself through the ruthless (but healthy) editing process and then the whole cycle begins again. Part of the “volumnity” is two piles of half-finished sculpture project began this year that I “should” return to. I began to feel the urge to torch the whole pile. Storage unit too. Freedom.
I also did my monthly bookkeeping…and felt the pressure of the next 3 months in the most expensive city in the world on my dwindling bank account. I’m not going to “really” run out of money for a while, but I definitely have gone beyond my budget for the “exploring” part of my transition…partly because I have been spending money on various forms of temporary housing pretty much all year. So I’m beginning to dip into the funds set aside for studying & its attendant expenses.
At the end of this grumbly, overwhelming day, Eric out of the blue asks…”after these two years of wandering, what vision do you see for your life? Just wondering – will you have money after you go to school? How will you make a living?” All kinds of DOUBT and panic swamped me. Not questions I can answer easily. While I feel (fantasize?) I have a clear sense of what I’m doing, on being pinned down I have to admit it’s all just a speculative brew of ideas I’ve collected from observing other working artists mixed with my various competing aspirations (time for some Vajra clarity there.) WTF am I doing? How did I go from being this person who worried about her 401K and spent years rehabilitating herself as financially “responsible” to someone who had faith that if she followed her inspiration things would work out? And now—moving to Europe to join an unpaid performance group? NUTS. I actually pictured myself (briefly) back at a desk at UBS with a steady paycheck, good health insurance, a regular schedule. But quickly saw that move as the one I’ve made repeatedly when I feel too overwhelmed by the panic I’ll not survive the perpetual uncertainty.
To find a livelihood in creative work that feels true and necessary requires living in this continual uncertainty. There’s no “safe” way to go about it – having money to live on the past two years while I’ve delved into what I care about most has inured me somewhat to the reality that I’m not some carefree world traveler with every curiosity an open door I can step through. In the next 2-5 years, I really do have to build a whole new life AND livlihood from the ground up and it is terrifying.
In Europe, living out of a suitcase, away from all the artifacts of the life I’ve led, everything seems so clear. And here, so complicated (is that any surprise?) I can continue to de-complicate, stuff-wise, but know I need to ask for some help – it’s a lot of work to go through everything and try to cut my possessions in half again. And realistically, life is complicated, no matter where I end up.
This overwhelm and panic is also where I’ve tripped in the past with relationships – it feels “safe” to make a haven in another person’s life and hide there (or try to), as many people do. I’ve written elsewhere that generally I don’t like life to feel too comfortable – I equate it with being asleep, in the cocoon – yet when I realize how exposed and vulnerable I am, I panic and long to jump into the nearest “safe” place, which sometimes is another person rather than situation. In either case, I realize there’s a key Buddhist teaching here (probably several) – the teachings on the Bardo or intermediary state between death and rebirth. In the Bardo it’s groundless – no longer with a body, mind is just flying wildly through some kind of space. It’s said that when we begin to panic in that state, we’re not trusting in the inherent wisdom-nature of our mind, sometimes called basic goodness, or buddha nature. From this doubt we feel the need for external confirmation – so we begin to look for what we think is a familiar (comfortable) situation. Rebirth is the accident that happens on the way to enlightenment (someone said that before me). We (formless, but with ability to know, hear, see) gravitate towards some couple having sex and boom – we’re conceived for another trip around the samsaric world. Recognizing this is what’s happening tames the panic a little for me, enough to take a few deep breaths and see just what is, in this moment, to trust that my inherent nature can lead me. And from that, maybe I see what to do next. As in today, this hour.
It’s remarkable to me that somehow this is now possible – all these years of practice seeing the thinking process of mind and (sometimes) recognizing how it rarely helps to just think my way through confusion. Confusion is another word for the panic. Not trusting that I have an inherent connection to wisdom, if I just allow it to emerge and illuminate. Practice has cultivated a tiny ability to withstand intense fear and see past it. I don’t know how it all turns out – and that’s ok. At least, I can remind myself of this from time to time.
It’s been nearly a year of traveling since my long stay at Karmé Chöling, after closing up my life in New York in 2013 and embarking on a sea journey to a more meaningful life and livlihood. I have some reflections about how my time there, and some years of dharma practice in general, have affected my life. Nothing earth-shattering yet it feels right to offer these thoughts. One aspect is meditation practice, which has developed more dimension and relaxation that filters into my days in subtle ways. I have more patience and appreciate myself and others more, yet have much less tendency to solidify identities. Especially in relationships, I am not as inclined to feel embarrassment or inadequacy when there is a misunderstanding of any kind, especially of the heart. I still experience potent periods of overwhelm, doubt, discouragement, confusion, desire, frustration – but they no longer feel endemic to my existence, as I see so much of it is in common with everyone. Although I have deep-seated habitual modes of protecting myself, I am more brave in how I communicate, most of the time, and see more quickly when I try to manipulate situations or make things “turn out” in some pre-conceived way. Most significantly, I am allowing myself to fall in love unabashedly, again and again, after a couple of decades of keeping the world at arms length. For all who have been a part, wittingly or not, of this fragile awakening, thank you for the tremendous gift of opening my heart. It feels good to know it is still alive.
Still, I wish I could experience this open heart with all of its inspiration and energy more. I lose contact with it a lot of the time. It seems to only be accessible when in honest communication, difficult and fear-inducing though that is, with another human being. When all pretense about hope, expectation or desire is recognized and let go, and we stop trying to protect ourselves. So easily seen in hindsight, so hard to achieve in the moment. The dance with vulnerability often seems crazy, unsensible, destabilizing—and yet the alternative perpetuates so much more pain.
I am writing from Vienna, my last day of a long visit here which included staffing the half Dathun in Hungary, a profoundly deep retreat for such a short time. I head to Dechen Chöling for the rest of the summer, which will fly quickly but promises more chances to dance and fall and evolve my understanding. My boat still has a lot of sea to cross before finding a port – see you along the way.
In the summers in the 1930’s my Dad and his sister Liz would travel down to Dante Virginia (pronounced “ant” with a D in front) with their mother Martha Hopkinson Tyler to visit Grandpa and Grandma Tyler. Down there, Grandpa Tyler was known as “WD” – for William Dowlin Tyler. He had come from Pennsylvania, where the Dowlins had been in the Downingtown area of Pennsylvania in a hamlet known as Dowlin Forge for generations. WD was an executive with the Clinchfield Coal Company, who had sent him to Dante in 1906 to secure mineral rights for the company. From Chief Land Agent he rose to become a Vice President of the company and spent the better part of 40 years there, engaging in the town’s development as well as the growth of the mining operation there.
On a map looking at southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky, the topography resembles a flat but wrinkled skin. Closer in, the “skin” is about 2500′ above sea level, with river gorges and creek valleys (“the wrinkles”) 1500 feet below the peaks, forming a vast network of waterways. The bending crevices are paved with small roads and rail lines, and hold hidden towns such as Dante (pronounced “ant” with a D on the front). The crevices are known as “hollers” – hollows in the mountains. Dante was originally known as the town of Turkey Foot, which described the shape of the landscape with its many hollows, such as Straight Hollow, Hospital Hollow, Lower Bearwallow Hollow, and naturally, Upper Bearwallow Hollow. One other street is named Bunchtown Road. The hotel, theater, and hospital are gone now, but the houses are still there, both of the coal workers who moved to the town, and the executives for the Clinchfield Coal company that once employed thousands across 10 towns in the Clinch river valleys of southwest Virginia. The coalworkers lived along the hollows; the executives on the top of Roanoke hill, known colloquially as “snob nob”. At present, the town is still home to a post office and school, and the old bank has been converted to a local history museum by the hard work of local citizens.
I arrived at 4:00 on June 26, a Wednesday, the one day of the week that the museum is closed. Knowing this in advance, I was hoping to find someone around town who could meet me. I parked in front of the museum and walked down to the post office where the postmaster Vickie was taking down the American flag before closing up for the day. I introduced myself and told her why I was there. She didn’t know anything about the Tyler family but she was fairly new to town. She did have the phone numbers of the three folks in town who had keys to the museum, and proceeded to call all of them, leaving messages. An older woman came in for her mail and said she thought the three had gone down to the hospital in St Paul, because one of their family had broken a hip the night before. I went back to Jewel Song and sat in the open hatch eating sunflower seeds; a pop up storm was passing through. Having driven an hour over the mountains to get here, I figured to just wait until someone came by.
The plaza where the old theater had stood was now just a cement pavement with a couple of picnic tables, and a recently built roofed wood stage faced south, topped with an old railroad sign for Dante. A girl in a motorized wheelchair and her friend sat at the picnic table, seemingly waiting for someone. CSX transportation had equipment on the rail line and men in orange vests were busy attending to it. People drove by in cars and pickup trucks and looked at me as they passed. Some of the cars were quite new – a Prius was among them.
About 20 minutes later, an older woman in white hair stopped in her sedan and pulled into the spot next to mine on the lawn in front of the museum. Her name was Bobbi, and it was her sister who had landed at the hospital with the broken hip. Bobbi hadn’t slept much as she’d spent the better part of the last 24 hours at the hospital, but the voicemail from Vickie about my visit spurred her to come see. I apologized for creating a stir and keeping her from a nap, but she demurred.
We talked about my great grandfather and she pointed me towards a thick book that had been written in 2004 on the history of the town which included several passages about my grandfather’s involvement in the town. It also included many photographs from the “Tyler collection,” which we concluded must have been the photographs my Aunt had dropped off there in 2000 as a donation. Somehow they had never gotten or lost her name, because in the forward to the book, the author bemoans not having the opportunity to thank the donor personally for what turned out to be a significant contribution to the overal oral history project and the town’s rememberance of its past. When we spoke about my GGF Tyler’s residence, she pointed me to a hand-drawn map in the book showing the houses of Roanoke Hill and their residents at the time of the company town’s peak.
Bobbi and the others involved in the museum are classic civic boosters, so I was advised on current states of things in the continuing survival of the town, and also she made sure I saw the museum gift case with t-shirts and christmas ornaments decorated with drawings of the featured buildings in the town’s past. Of course I bought the book, and a couple of t-shirts and ornaments for gifts.
Map in hand, I began to walk to Roanoke Hill Road. The sun had returned and it was a pleasant day. Not many people were about. The path to the top of the road via the old pedestrian walkway was completely overgrown, so I took the road which looped around a few times, a good bit of exercise. At the top, I found a bug-screen-enclosed pool with three kids splashing about, all around 9 years old. The Two boys were boistrious and jocular; the girl sharp and wiley, all curious about this friendly stranger with a camera.
I talked with them for a few minutes then continued walking, trying to orient myself to the map. A house on the corner seemed like it might be the place, but the number didn’t match up. I kept going up the hill and passed a house with loud dogs chasing my presence. Three teenagers came to the door to see what the dogs were barking for and I turned around and said hello. One had the phone in her hand, but when I waved, they came out – two girls and a guy. I mentioned I was looking for #762 and they looked a bit quizzical. I showed them the map, but it confused them also. After a group pow-wow we decided I must have gone too far and should return to the corner. We joked about the weather finally turning nice, and I moved on. I found myself wondering if the girl with the phone to her ear had called a parent when the dogs started barking and kept that person on the phone while we talked.
Back at the corner, I encountered a Robert Fraser, watching his pixie daughter playing in the street with the other kids, older than her. I introduced myself and my project. We looked together at the map, a picture from the book I had saved on my iPhone, and came to the conclusion that it was the house we were standing before. Just then the house’s occupant came out.
Chris grew up in the house and still lives here with his father, who was out. He didn’t know who had been there before them, and felt a bit sheepish about the shape of it now. Work is hard to come by in this part of the world, so money to fix a house’s back wall or put on a new roof isn’t available. Still, he was interested in the story so offered to tidy up inside a little and let me take a few pictures.
Robert lives up the street next door to his parents, having moved back after his daughter was born. He’s a senior engineer at a local energy company and commutes an hour to work – but would rather live where kids can run around and play and “going an hour actually gets you somewhere,” unlike his experience with city living.
We chatted for quite a while on topics of family, community, and the Obama administration’s energy policy, which is not popular here. Coal mining is still the main job source, and there are no alternatives for many of the people as the country moves away from this fuel.
Robert’s father Robbie came over after a while, but his recollections of old neighbors didn’t reach back to my great grandfather’s time. At the end of the long day, I got motel suggestions from Robbie and left them all hanging out on the porch in the fading light.
At the bottom I found my Dad’s fishing hat tucked into the mirror on the car. I’d left it in the museum during my visit.
(yet to come: notes on the journey from Kentucky to Kansas, July 2-6, through Boone, Kentucky, Carbondale, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Hutchinson.
July 7, 2013
Iowa City is a city. I mention this because the first thing I noticed driving down Dubuque from I-80 was the blinding light tree of an ambulance parked ahead of my turn onto Brown Street. Sirens were in the background off and on as I unpacked, and they felt out of place. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard sirens near a place I was about to go to sleep, which is funny, coming from such a place as NYC only a month ago. Dubuque was a park on one side and houses on the other, empty at 11pm, save for the ambulance. It felt slightly foreboding.
In the Smith’s bed and breakfast, nothing could be more charming. Found at the last minute while I ate dinner in Liberty Missouri. I decided arriving at a campground at 11pm without advance reservations or familiarity wouldn’t work. I saw a picture of a pleasant victorian house in a row of the same with a porch, and pictured myself on it, writing and thinking deep thoughts. Remarkably they had a room for me.
I worked in my room after a pleasantly unexpected breakfast of spinach frittatas and fresh fruit on the screen porch with a couple of women who were old IC High School friends visiting home to celebrate their divorces and a young Arkansas mom who was in town to do a 2-week yoga teacher training with a Baptiste senior student. All of us women in the midst of big transitions.
I’ve come to the point where the idea of “catching up” the blog entries will require an entire vacation in itself. No long after leaving the Outer Banks I was spending so much time with people there wasn’t a place for stealing several hours to go write. I kept notes, but it seems to say anything more interesting than “I went here, then here, then here” in a coherent way requires at least 4-5 uninterrupted hours with a good internet connection, which was also problematic for several days. So I’ve made notes along the way and have been using the voice recorder while driving and will transcribe and post pieces about the trip as I get to them.
In less than 10 days I’ll be interrupting my peripatetic summer for a 12-day group retreat at Karme Choling in Vermont. It should be a great relief and a great joy. When I left June 10th it was with the knowledge that I would eventually return, probably in the fall, as auspicious circumstances would undoubtedly emerge over the time of my travels and retreats this summer. Rather than accept a position that would be perfectly suitable but spiritually frustrating, we left the door open for something else to arise.
As I move from place to place the question in the background is where are the places I could live and flourish? Who would I be if I lived in Lewes, Delaware, or Kansas City? Or Buhler? This is just one theme occurring during these travels, one that has followed me most of my adult life. There are places I have visited that feel like they could be home, and others that don’t, no matter how interesting they were to visit.
Buhler had a strong effect on my mind. I imagined opening a retreat center in the farmhouse my sister and her husband are about to sell so midwestern contemplatives could enjoy the extreme peacefulness and wisdom present in the land there. In buddhist language, the term for a well-practiced, settled mind is shinjang – to be “shinjanged” is to not be easily stirred up by external situations, to have equanimity in the face of frustration, passion, heartbreak, lust – whether one’s own or another’s. Ultimately it comes from the understanding that we have everything we need – we are not faulty or incomplete, but whole and capable of connecting with that completeness. We do not need confirmation from others, from institutions, or our own circumstances to know this wholeness that exists within us, even when we hear that usual voice telling us we need to eat better or get more work done. The sky over Kansas is broad and endless blue, a reflection of all possibilities being available. Looking over the literal field of gold towards the tiny trees and white elevators of Buhler, the yard elms rustling in the wind, swallows tittering on the telephone wire, we know all of it – life, relationships, conflicts – is workable.
Hutchinson, where Ann works, and where she & Dan will be moving in September, is a quaint western town of 36,000 with a main-street /downtown life that is growing after a long period of downturn. The old signs and shops are being “revitalized”, the broad streets spruced with cultural events. Hutchinson and a sister city, McPhearson, going the other direction from Buhler and a little busier, had a diversity of ages, backgrounds, and cultural gems, including good coffee bars, which seems to have become one barometer of livability in the places I have visited. There, I would live on a farm but enjoy going into town, rather than the other way around. I would certainly have a horse for crossing the fields and wandering off into the sand hills dotted with sage – riding seems the best way to enjoy the landscape there.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t linger in Buhler’s equanimity a few days more, as there would be too much road to take back on the return. I left this western-most point of my trip forlorn at the prospect of never seeing it again.
All fantasy aside, now in Iowa City I’ve put 8 hours of road between me and that aerie. I’m in the home of great writers and artists, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and University of Iowa, 90 miles east of Des Moines. A friend’s son recently finished his masters here and just moved back to NYC. Pictures from his Mom’s visits were landscapes; but sunrises over fields does not describe the city itself, which is a marriage of college town and frontier town. Old photographs on the walls at Heirloom Salad Company show broad earth streetscapes peopled with town folks and farm folks and their carriages, more western than eastern. The blocks are walkable length, unlike Chicago where they take ten minutes to traverse (or so it seems). Huge churches hold the center; a mix of bungalows and houses; victorian through arts & crafts mostly, form the neighborhoods. The university to the west is knitted to the downtown on it’s eastern edge, crossing the river in the process. I happened upon the Iowa City Jazz Festival, as well as the Iowa Summer Writers Workshop, so town was full of visitors and families enjoying the midway foods and all-day music on the main thoroughfare, in the 90 degree humid sun. I spent the day indoors once I walked downtown, first in the salad place, then in Prairie Lights bookstore – the inimitable writer’s bookstore of the midwest; and finally in one of the upscale venues serving locally-sourced fare that makes up the trio of 128, Hearth, and Moonrakers restaurants.
College town midsummer: bicycles, 20-somethings, wiskers, pubs, sports bars, “halls”, delis, bookstores, houses for rent, campus green, coffee shops, short shorts, sundresses, men in flip-flops, law enforcement officers carrying a globe made out of twigs and sporting baseball caps. Middle-aged single women moving from coffee shop to coffee shop with their laptops. Hondas and Toyotas and Subarus. A reporter from La Prensa news visiting the Jazz fest with his wife and child , press pass dangling from the jacket tied at his waist. Girls’ hair twisted into topknots and ponytails. A loner tomboy wearing a black and yellow luau lei and a red backpack over black clothes. A summer ice rink made of soap-like tiles…for “real” ice skating in the 90-degree heat.
I spent two nights at the Smith’s, sleeping and writing, before heading 4 hours north to Minneapolis and a possible meeting with some long lost Lanning cousins…if I could reach them.
Minneapolis by bike
July 10, 2013
Minneapolis charms – I’m staying on an island in the Mississippi, in an old 1890’s hotel, looking over bridges, paris-like boulevards with cafes, and bicyclists everywhere on plentiful bike paths and greenways. I rented a bike and rode down to Anodyne coffeehouse, which had a tasty gluten-free croque monsieur. My visit was too short to get to the many distractions I ‘ve been interested in here, such as the Walker art museum, the Shambhala Center, friends. I started getting a cold the day I drove into town, so have been taking it easy here. If you can call a 15-mile bike ride easy.
I did reach Jim Lanning, one of my cousins descended from our great grandparents Edna Bolles and James W Lanning, and he invited me over to his house in the Medicine Lake area. Jim is the 4th of these James Lannings, but the numbering skipped a generation so he’s got a 3rd in the records. I shared the old photos of the original James Lanning and Jim’s father and uncle and my grandmother Dorothy, who he met as a baby. We have more to figure out about the family history, such as what happened to the 2nd James Lanning, who apparently died fairly young, since Edna remarried Edgar Bensel and my mother knew Edgar as her grandfather, not James. It gets confusing keeping all the James’s sorted!
I’m now on the 7-day trip back east, through the Upper Peninsula tonight, then into Canada. Back to camping, and cooler temps.
August 2, 2013
I’m in Nova Scotia, staying for a few days with friends in Halifax doing a Shambhala retreat with Rinpoche, then off to New Germany for a solitary retreat at Windhorse Farm. The city and weather have been very kind and I’m enjoying all the new food establishments since my last visit in 2009 (Ace Burger, Smiling Goat, Saege, Gingerhaus, Ireland 32, etc…) Halifax also boasts the most pubs per capita of any Canadian city so there’s been some of that too. The last two weeks of July I was in a closed group retreat at Karme Choling in Barnet Vermont, my favorite place and where I expect to land later this year to be on staff. Hence the lack of updates…no devices during retreat is a great gift. After the driving schedule of June and July this was a much needed stillness and I was soaking in some very inspiring teaching with 84 fellow retreatants, many old friends.
Soon I’ll be heading up the coast to Ingonish and Gampo Abbey, and touring Cape Breton, a place I’ve longed to see since a cab driver I met in 1989 at my local Denny’s enticed me with descriptions of his homeland. The camera will be out with me so I’ll share when I have internet access.
I drove to Halifax from Vermont over 2 days, going through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and cutting across Maine. I stopped for a quick bite at the Eagle’s Nest in Brewer, across the river from Bangor, which has an amazing, huge lobster roll. Stayed overnight in the New Brunswick town of St John – one of a string of “Saint” towns along the Bay of Fundy coastline of this province. Established during the American revolutionary war, it became the home for American refugees loyal to the British – “Loyalists” – and had an enormous shipping and shipbuilding economy in the the 19th century. A fire in the 1870’s burned down much of the original wood architecture but several blocks remain – the new buildings are brick and various styles. The Bay of Fundy is known for its world-record tides, a variance daily of some 55 feet. I wasn’t around very long so the city is on the list of places to return to.
Today’s schedule starts in about an hour and I haven’t had breakfast so just a short update for now.
August 20, 2013
Today would have been Mom’s 81st birthday. I dreamt about her just before waking. I had a large jigsaw puzzle of a collage of photographs I made of the Tashkent ballet and the Uzbek President while I was there in 2002 – a huge red and gold-toned thing I was putting together and she was sitting to my right in her wheelchair helping me find the pieces. We were in the living room at 10 Beth Lane, which coincidentally had (during my life there) a red carpet with gold and white furniture. The puzzle was almost done. There were a few pieces with images of pine trees that didn’t seem to fit – they were on the floor next to the card table. I bent down to pick them up. When I came up she was gone.
She always liked jigsaw puzzles. I was reminded of her a few days ago for another reason. While dining at The Biscuit-eater in Mahone Bay, both a cafe and book shop. On top of a bookcase next to the table was a set of six thick Diana Gabaldon novels. Mom loved these and other history-fantasy-series like them. I think she preferred them because they offered complete escape from her life. She often had three books going at once when I was growing up – one at the kitchen table for reading during dinner, one on the bedtable, and one in her purse for reading during her workweek lunch hours. There was never any gap in her time that she didn’t have a book to her face. These last couple of years, reading and her other favorites–puzzles and needlecraft–faded as her eyesight began to succumb. She still liked having books, puzzles and crafts around her, but did not take them off the shelf anymore. A week before she died she asked one of the nurses to take them as a donation…she was letting go.
She would have insisted on seeing the photographs from my travels this summer and hearing about the places I’ve visited, and the visits with my sisters and what it’s like where they live. And she would have also said, “well it’s too bad you had to do all that by yourself!” I would have rolled my eyes.
It’s true. A lot of the time – especially of late, coming out of solitary retreat at radiant Windhorse Farm and traveling up the jeweled coast of Nova Scotia, the absence of a traveling companion has been there, sometimes sharply. A lot has gone in and through my mind the last three months with the amazing places and people I’ve encountered, but it’s been too soon to process a lot of it to post here; so the sense of you all traveling with me has flickered in and out of focus. Having a partner would have changed the whole trip in innumerable ways – it would simply have been a different trip. The result, perhaps, is a bit too much of a window into Susan’s solitary life, which she sometimes wonders how it might change.
The eastern coast of Cape Breton from Cape Smokey (375 meters on the ocean) up to Neil’s Harbour is beyond everything I could have imagined in 1988 when I first thought I would come here and hike the highlands. Back then, I was attending Drexel’s Hotel Restaurant Management program in Philadelphia and working as a night auditor at a downtown hotel. I lived on Baltimore Pike just outside of West Philly and would eat at a Denny’s there before driving in for my shift. Another regular there was a cab driver, I think John, who was from Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. John was probably in his 40’s, had black bushy hair and black square glasses and a round shape. Funny accent. I’m sure we struck up a conversation one night over sourdough turkey melts and another time he began to tell me about this magical place he was from. So in August of 1988 I had a North American Road Atlas and my high school backpacking equipment in my car and two weeks off from the hotel and figured to wing it from there…but it wasn’t in the cards then. As was often the occurrence in Philadelphia at that time, my car was broken into and a number of things went missing…I was spooked and did not go.
So as I was driving across the causeway to Cape Breton Island and began my Cabot Trail journey around the island, I felt rather odd. I tried to remember the 20-year-old that I once was and what it would have been like for her if she’d come then. And how different my life would have been since if she had.
What might have happened is I would have not made it back to Philadelphia – for it would take more than two weeks to drive up, hike around, and then drive back…along the way encountering a lot of fiddlers, fishermen, and the powerful mountain and valley spirits that are clearly present. I very likely would have encountered Shambhala buddhism, although I may not have yet had the mind open enough to explore it. Two significant Shambhala pilgrimage sites are on the Cabot Trail – Gampo Abbey, near Pleasant Bay on the western coast, and Kalapa Valley, a sacred landscape, on the east coast. My inquiries into buddhist philosophy emerged a few years later instead – and my first encounters with Shambhala were in New York, in the late 1990’s. Shambhala’s founder, the Tibetan meditation master and yogi Chogyam Trungpa, had traveled from Boulder to Nova Scotia in 1979 with several of his students and toured extensively, noting several aspects of the land and culture here that would provide a stable and nurturing environment for Shambhala’s 10-year-old organization to grow further. Kalapa Valley was discovered at that time and eventually was bought by several practitioners and donated to the organization. Gampo Abbey was formed in 1984 to provide a monastic option for Shambhala practitioners.
Both places have been in my mind to visit since 2004, when I became a more serious meditation student and was looking for inspiration and retreat locations in the Shambhala community. Although the main Shambhala administration, it’s “Vatican” if you like, is in Halifax, the heart of Shambhala is in Cape Breton.
One of the places Chogyam Trungpa stopped on his travels around the island was the Keltic Lodge, a few miles north of Kalapa Valley. There he dined and wrote poems. After I settled into my campsite in the valley I drove up there for dinner. The Keltic sits on the end of a sliver of peninsula flanked on the south by Ingonish Bay and the bluff of Cape Smokey and on the north by Ingonish Island and The Point at Ingonish town. Driving along the single road I was surrounded by thick birch forest and did not realize the vista that would open up at the top. I parked at sunset and observed newer buildings on either side of me – a spa, a restaurant, paths to the golf links, and a path leading further up the peninsula. A wedding was about to unfold in the Ceilidh hall – a fiddler was marrying a step dancer. A bagpiper played at the entrance enjoining those milling about to go into the hall. A sign pointed me to the main lodge; I could see now that orange light illuminating Cape Smokey off to my right and Ingonish to the left. Ahead was a hill through more forest, then the lodge came into view – white with red tudor trim, stately, and home to so much history. The Highland room has light supper and free live music, so as was recommended to me I went in. The room has doric columns and beamed ceiling; a large white fireplace, many upholstered seats; a small bar. Cozy yet dignified. I could see Trungpa and his students here. After a while the room filled with vacationing golfers from North Carolina and Toronto, in t-shirts and shorts, drinking light beers and chatting about where they are from and how many years they’ve been coming here. I wondered at the way you can sometimes be somewhere without a clue how much history is in the room with you.
On my way along the path to the lodge I had stopped to look off the cliff at Smokey. It was beautiful, and eerily familiar. I once many years ago had had a dream about such a place in which Trungpa had appeared, I walking along the cliff edge behind him. He had peered over his glasses at me and said, “If you have no doubt, you can fly…” It was somewhere I’d never been – until now.
As I continue my practice and pilgrimage here I recognize I’m not alone at all.
A Month Goes Quickly
August 25, 2013
I’m sitting in the kitchen of a motel room with two queen beds, a deck with a gas grill, a view of the Bay of Fundy, that smells of cigarette smoke. The New Brunswick-Maine border at 30 minutes drive west. The last two days I was in the perfect cottage in Margaree Harbour, hosted by friends Kristine & Don, Shambhala friends and owners of the fabulous Larch Wood cutting board business. (They are a work of art that only improve with regular use – wood craftmanship of the highest order). The Margaree river valley and beaches reminded me so much of Cape Cod and the work I used to do with Joel Meyerowitz. It has a certain kind of light through all times of day that render the land/sea-scape so vividly, and a pastoral peacefulness that could nurture a year of writing. The view and interior were as if I’d designed my perfect environment – the pine walls, white floor, window seats, old wood furniture; the view of windblown grasses and tiny houses and churches dotting the green hills, the mountains in the distance, the church and general store, the turquoise and blue water at the beach, the grassy path to the beach cutting through the view, leading to sand dunes. The lovely inviting shrine room, the light penetrating in the chilly morning, and glazing everything with a soft glow in the afternoon.
Before that, I visited Gampo Abbey in Pleasant Bay, also on the western coast of Cape Breton. A short stop on the way to Margaree from Kalapa Valley, it was a grounded place within a dramatic landscape of windblown cliffs dropping into the ocean. Before that, I was in Kalapa Valley, Great Space of green and strong thriving poplars and birches echoing winds from the deeper valley crests. A solitude of people but not of spirit. The presence of my teachers and the wild sacredness of mouse scat. Before that an Inn in Baddeck. Before that, far east near Canso in a tent enduring unceasing wind by a steep shore on Chedabouctou Bay. Before that, a cozy campground in Murphy’s Cove with a maritime village feel and free mussels at the nightly campfire. Before that, a B&B between two churches in Mahone Bay on the South Shore with a clawfoot tub and a chatty, cynical, despairing european owner and his efficient wife, cheerful gray dog with white moustache and eyebrows. A sailing harbour, as was Baddeck. Margaree is a fishing harbour. Mahone Bay was a ship-building harbour, but not deep enough once the ships were cargoed. Lunenberg down the next cove took on that port business instead. Before that, Windhorse Farm in New Germany for 10 days on solitary retreat in a cabin with solar lights, looking out on a beaver pond and the Wentzell Lake beyond. Gardens with blueberries lining the grassy paths among the perennial beds, plenty of places to wander aimlessly. Before that, Halifax at friends near the Common who were walking companions as we went back and forth downtown to our Shambhala program for 3 days. Before that, St. John New Brunswick, at a B&B for a very late (dark) arrival and quick transition from Eastern to Atlantic time, mist along ancient townhouse Loyalist streets and coffee in hand, a peaceful cemetary park, an industrial harbour.
Last night I passed St. John in daylight, the only disruption to the endless trees and rolling hills of three hours of NB-1 Trans-Canada Highway. The motel a recommendation from the Margaree friends, it is a good place, but the contrast is great. Shortly I head over the border towards “home,” stopping in Maine with friends, or camping, I haven’t decided. Friends haven’t written back. Its been just under a month in the Maritimes, the 29th of July to now. And just about 3 months since I gave up my job and apartment – doesn’t feel like a season could go so quickly and yet May 28 seems so long ago as well. I expect to spend September reorganizing for the fall, writing, preparing for the month-long program at KCL I am one of the meditation instructors for. “Reorganizing for the fall” – really more reorganizing for more groundlessness. Things are not clear, although my time in Nova Scotia informed a lot. What is clearer are the true aspirations and the options that I want to be part of the conversation – with myself, my friends, and acquaintances who have a view on my intentions. My ability to stay with the open space is tenuous – it would be much easier to just do the obvious, choose the option based on easing my mind rather than following the deeper intentions. I’m aware that at some point this could transform into trying to keep options open, which never accomplishes anything. Adam Gopnik once wrote about a piece of advice a professor gave him when he was trying to decide his university path – art or neuroscience. It was agonizing…the professor then said something like “if the choices are equally valid and inspiring, it doesn’t matter which you choose; whatever it is will work out.” Good to know…if only I could be entirely convinced.
In 2013, after 20 years in New York City, I gave up my job and apartment, put all my possessions in storage, and bought a car. This is a compilation of my blog entries from that summer.
June 10, 2013. Driving south in Vermont…
Jewel Song (my blue Outback) and I are on 91, just having left Karme Choling, a Shambhala Buddhist meditation retreat in Barnet, VT. Its Monday about 2:20 and it’s overcast but bright day, there has been a lot of rain the last week so it’s vivid green everywhere…
I-91 in Vermont is one of the few interstate-system highways I enjoy driving. Goal is to get to Spencertown, NY in relaxed but efficient way, do laundry, recover energy from the program I coordinated – there were a lot of challenges, I’m quite exhausted. Then to embark on the itinerary I’ve been planning. Confirming places staying the next few days.
I had this experience last few days while at KCL…people ask me where I’m from and I respond not from anywhere now. A few days later they ask me again to remind them where I’m from…at least 4 people had the same befuddlement. It’s a distinctive feeling to not be from somewhere, both for me and for the people I’m encountering. What does it mean to be from somewhere?
What about to not be from anywhere? This quality of wanting to pin something down behind the question. Tring to know someone by where they are from and your associations with that place, or if you don’t know that place, that has its own feeling too. We’re always trying to figure out our world and who is who or what they are, but if you don’t have those reference points, how do you relate to people. Can you relate to them just as human beings? Feel who they are as you feel yourself to be? So there are conventional ways and I guess there are universal ways but we usually just rely on conventions of our native culture. Conventionally associating with a place, job, role, age, physical appearance, gender, particular group, teenagers, religion, political view. So I’ve taken away a handle that people can use to label me and so, I kind of think those labels are helpful to a degree. A person uses their previous experience to infer what you might be like – there is the curiosity aspect of I want to know you, and the small anxiety of your new-ness and uncertainty if you are a person they want to like.
What it comes down to is it’s about orientation. This program I was coordinating was partly to learn a new way of teaching meditation that includes an aspect of becoming aware of feeling – what’s happening in your mind & body so you have some orientation to who you are, what your mind is like in that moment, and what aspects of your environment are an important element of that. It’s very much about orientation – having a clear view of where you are, what is reality, and what you are in that reality – how you are “being”.
Rocky faces of shale with bright yellow flowers on long stems growing out of the rocks. Bursts of yellow rising from the rock crevices. I want to pull over to photograph them but there’s no shoulder and at highway speed…
What I’m doing with my life now is re-orientation. There’s a feeling of being a compass needle floating on the face trying to find magnetic north. I’ve left my job, left my home, and am embarking on something. I will be putting myself into a constant transition…the transition of going from place to place and trying to not become scattered but instead more focused. I know it’s possible or I wouldn’t have had the insistent intuition that this is what I wanted to do. But that’s just the first part of what I’m trying to do. The first part is stepping away from everything thats been stable for me the last several years, but to tour. From stasis to movement. And then I’m expecting to land somewhere. Idea is to land at Karme Choling, because when I’m there, all the feedback from the environment, from how feel there, to how people in my world interrelate says this is where you belong, should be next. Or just should be, and there is no next next, it’s just where I am at that point. Once that happens, there’s not a lot of stillness at KCL – on the one hand, it’s very quiet place relative to the city, nurturing environment ecologically, food, landscape culture. It’s a place where if you need to be someplace in solitude it’s possible to do that pretty easily. At the same time, it’s a place of great transience because you have people coming and going for programs all the time. Just when you get used to someone being around, they leave. Not like a university where people are around for 4-10 years. The longest program at KCL is a 3-month institute. The people living there, the background society, constantly have to work with phenomena arising and dissolving: programs and people, and the moody weather. It’s extremely powerful to learn how to work with that – for anyone. So I’m embarking on this series of free transitions, tastings, touring, to have no reference point but myself…and the car. Out of that I feel that something will arise that will be the magnetic north…and that will be the next phase of my life.
On Rte 11 west through VT. A few nice villages and smaller ski resorts arise and pass with the attendant funky restaurants. A friend has a t-shirt that says “Keep Vermont Weird”. A nice week to be here – everything in bloom, huge 3′ tall ferns, all the grasses are flowering, their tops different colors in white, red, tan, in a meadow you see subtle swaths of color. Rhododendron and azaleas all a flower in lavender, burgundy, pink. Lupines in dark purple with a single pink or white. Earth appears to be bursting with life. Rte 11 starting in Chester parallels a branch of the Williams river that even after all this rain still looks low, a lot of rocks. But you can see sections where (near O’s road east of Tater Hill golf club for example) you see repaved where the river might have taken out the road during Irene. Mountains ahead capped in mist.
I made my way through Bennington and Pittsfield then jigged over the NY State border, a journey of almost 4 hours, just in time for dinner. My friend E’s home in Spencertown, a home away from home. Somewhere familiar for a couple days.
June 12, 2013: Off from my friend’s house in Spencertown to Philadelphia via Riverdale. REI and the USPS conspired to make me get my new camping stove at my old Bronx apartment building. No point in grumbling, but given my late start I won’t be able to visit my grandparents old street in Trenton on this trip before heading to West Philly for dinner.
The last two days I didn’t relax or recharge much at all, too busy just finishing up bookkeeping and paperwork and getting responses about places to stay and it was just endless and I can’t figure out why there was so much to do. It was maddening. Monday when I left KCL I had such a chatty day saying good bye and debriefing, didn’t step away for an hour to walk or meditate. Chatty when I got to spencertown because Irene was there and we were catching up. I didn’t practice… Minute I was up in the AM I was doing doing doing, calling people, running to chatham and the post office and back and forth to the back house, car, etc. I was up to 1:30am last night just figuring out the routes and how long it will take me to get place to place…since Kathy is taking days off to spend with me and needed an arrival time, which is impossible on a road trip. I finally sat and practiced today at 1:45 just before leaving. Felt essential and it cleared the irritation. In part of the practice I’m doing we place awareness on feeling. I saw the resistance I have to being put on a schedule, as well as driving into cities with a loaded car and parking it there. I don’t want to be constantly calculating my arrival dates from place to place. And I realize I am disinclined to spend any time in cities on this trip because I feel so encumbered with things I can’t afford to lose, I’ll be hyper-aware of where Jewel Song is parked when I’m not in her.
I can see the Catskills from Rigor Hill Rd. It’s been raining and raining. Sun came out for about an hour. We’re chasing sun spots gliding along the Taconic as the clouds move across the sky. All the different colored grasses shimmering in the breeze and sunlight. Everything is radiant. Flat-bottom clouds ahead hanging over the Fishkill ridge. Love driving on days like today. The car feels as if it flies through space. I can’t believe I’m actually on my way. Such a weird feeling to think I’m not going to be sleeping in a familiar bed for a long, long time. 11 weeks on the road. its exciting to be on the road, to be on my way to see new things, and people. Except the city thing – not looking forward to that…I could have gone straight down the coast to Delaware …but I feel a tug not to miss old haunts and old friends.
Remembering when I came back from Bangladesh in 2002 having had that unnerving experience feeling like the whole world I’d known in NY was just a figment of my imagination. It’s a feeling I haven’t had for a while. The contrast, the vividness of Dhaka was so impressive that you could feel nauseated, the severity of dis-connection is strong, so unfamiliar to a Westerner, you feel like you’ve landed on a different planet. And the distance covered to get there which seems to erase whatever might have existed where you were when you left. So when I left E’s house I actually took a picture when I was pulling out of the driveway. The next time I see that house will be at the end of August–I wonder if it’s still there, even now, 20 miles down the road. You’re only really able to know what’s right in front of you, the present.
June 12-13: Home to Home to Home…
Downingtown to Lewes
June 14, 2013: I arrived late to my Aunt’s apartment in Downingtown last night. My family has been in the Downingtown area going back to the mid-1600’s. Dowlin Forge on the Brandywine river just north of the borough was the place, Dowlins/Devlins/O’Devlins being my ancestors from Scotland, sometimes from Ireland – they went back and forth. My Aunt is a font of family history on the Jenkins side. She and my dad grew up in the house on the hill overlooking the forge, and until a few years ago the 1760’s caretakers house down the hill was the home for her and my uncle and cousins. I did a photo essay before she sold it to preserve the decades of memories we have there.
My Aunt is my only remaining relative of my parents generation. She was a strong influence on me as a child through her colorful stories of the family history and her deep appreciation of social manners and propriety. Her encouragement and support have been an anchor in the difficult times of the past few years.
Northbrook Canoe Co. on the Western branch of the Brandywine River in SE Pennsylvania.
This afternoon from Downingtown I took 322 to Sugars Bridge road to Northbrook road, a winding series around the Brandywine riverways shaded by trees and revealing one after another bucolic scene of country life and gentleman farms. Around a bend I ran smack into the Northbrook Canoe Co.; I’d completely forgotten where it was but I had a picture with high school friends there in 1984 when on a hot summer day I dragged them along for a canoe trip. There are many more buildings than I remember, old wood, and a railroad with old station/house. I walked around. The place seemed open but devoid of people, until I found the office in the middle of the compound. According to Zane in a green polo shirt and baseball cap, Northbrook has been there 37 years…I realize that I’m older than this “old” place. It would have opened when I was 8. Nothing appears to have changed – I still have the original brochure from 1984 and it contains the same illustrations.
It’s such a beautiful drive on these roads through a very lovely part of PA, lots of farms, one-intersection hamlets, and old stone houses. I headed south through Kennett Square on PA82. Haven’t been through here in 30 years. A brick Victorian burg with a main street, modestly maintained victorian brick row houses with wood porches. Before he died, my cousin Jimmy managed one of the mushroom farms here that Kennett Square is famous for. I’ve always appreciated the flavor and charm of these eastern PA towns – Downingtown has a mix of the same – colonial & victorian housing with some run down 19c industrial spaces. Easton, PA is another example, where Jewel Song came from after the Japanese built her. It would be neat to do a photo essay on these places. One of the other significant features of eastern PA is its stone houses dating from colonial times – you can’t drive a mile in any direction without seeing one, mined from the region’s past as a present-day home or business, or left as decrepit monuments to the ghosts of past lives long forgotten. The stone is Wissahickon schist, culled from the valley of the river that bears the same name. Some (LINK) have written widely on the use of this material and how unique the area is because of it – nowhere else I’ve been in the Northeast has such a prevalence.
Alas, I realize I can’t make it to Ridley Park and the Swarthmore Ave house where Mom lived during High School – too far east and I want to arrive in Cape Henlopen before storms hit or it’s too dark to cook.
Nonetheless, I later find myself in a pounding rain and flash-floody storm at 5:31pm. On Deleware route 1, people are heading home from work. Going 40 MPH with flashers on, three miles north of Smyrna DE. DE1 is not an unpleasant roadway although it is multi-lane. There is an astonishing amount of water pouring out of the sky. Jewel Song’s wipers are keeping up, her AWD is moving us along sturdily.
I arrived in Cape Henlopen as the storm was clearing and attempted to register for a campsite. I’d called earlier in the day to see if I needed a reservation and was told they had plenty of spots, since it was a Thursday night. I could have gone online and reserved a spot with Delaware’s sophisticated parks web site, but threw caution to the wind to be more like the aimless wanderer I wanted to be. Mistake, for the registration agent was having trouble with his computer when I got there. Computerized campgrounds have arrived and it’s a complicated scene. After an hour of going back and forth looking for sites with no yellow reservation tag on them, while looking also online to see what was stil available on the web site, a very hungry and annoyed Susan finally parked in a spot and set about her first night of camping in several years. Unwrapping the stove rescued from Riverdale I hooked it up and began assembling dinner. About 9:00pm as I was putting the finishing touches on a few sausages and green beans, a large, loud family with many pre-adolescent children who liked hollering stadium chants and hip-hop lines to each other pulled in two rows over. The campsites are very close together at CHSP so there was no missing these folks for any of the rest of us. I felt myself stiffen up at the prospect of going to say something to them – after all, it’s a family campground, and I’m just a solo weirdo making gourmet sausages and haricots vert, who’s going to sleep in her padded car rather than set up a tent on the wet sand for one night. I decided they would probably quiet down after a while and I would sleep peacefully, if not eat peacefully. This was the case.
The next day was supposed to be dry and sunny, but I awoke at 6:00 to windy rain. Instead of the lovely walk to the beach through the dunes followed by a short swim, I contemplated just throwing on some clothes, hitting the bathroom, and driving into town with a bead on a good cafe. It was a shame to be in this beautiful place and not at least take a walk. I dressed quickly and donned my parka, swung by the bathroom for morning ablutions, and then proceeded towards the sandy trail from the campsite that leads to the dunes. A few sullen campers in hoodies and pj’s drifted past.
On the path was an old lookout tower from WW2. The Delaware shore is dotted with them, particularly Henlopen and it’s NJ sister Cape May, which protect the harbor that leads to the Delaware river and Philadelphia. Henlopen was the site of Fort Mill, a small base that is now part of the park and used by group youth camps, such as the one lead by my teachers from General Wayne Junior High every year for 7th graders. It was a highlight of my 2 years there, which were otherwise torturous in the way Jr. High usually is.
I came upon Tower 7, which is the only one open to the public, and ascended. The wind whirled through the small slits in the side of the concrete and echoed off the metal staircase, making a whuh-whuh-whuh sound that was intriguing and haunting. The hills of the park and cape slowly came into view as I reached each level until I was at the wet, windy top. The ocean was churning a mile from my vantage, and the Cape and Lewes barely visible. It also appeared to be quite a long way to the beach; as I was becoming miserably chilly and wet, I decided this would be my tour of the park and a cafe was calling.
I stopped at the campground office to pay for the night, since they had not collected from me during the debacle of the previous night – but no one was there. The shade was drawn. It was 8:30. I drove off to town, not willing to endure more hassle, feeling guilty.
I discovered Cafe Azafran, which was the perfect home to wait out the rain and catch up on photo downloads and journal entries. Lewes is a cheerful, charming place with a small-town feel – lots of colorfully painted, nicely maintained houses downtown; thoughtful parks, a light tourist scene. It calls itself “The First City in the First State,” referring to it’s first settlement date of 1631 when the Dutch first established there. Lewes was tossed back and forth between the Dutch and Lenni Lenape, followed by the British, until finally settled more or less permanently by the British in the late 1670’s. Nestled between Cape Henlopen and the Great Marsh Preserve, it is home to the University of Deleware’s Marine studies campus and Beebe Medical Center, founded by two brothers doctors in the early 1900’s.
2nd Street, Lewes
The sun eventually came out around Noon and the remainder of my time in Lewes was going to be devoted to finding my Grandfather’s plot in the Methodist Cemetary. A handwritten note in the strongbox indicated he was buried there; and my mother had at one time or another said she thought he was there. I was expecting to find him and record the location, as well as see who else of interest might be buried next to him in case it lead to relatives we haven’t tracked down yet.
Lewes to Greenbackville, VA
June 14, 2014: I parked in the Bethel Methodist cemetary, a block-wide rectangle flanked on the west by the Beebe Medical center on the main route into Lewes, and sought out the older-looking tombstones. As I walked through the rows all the white, rust-stained stones were from lives lived in the 1800’s, while those who would have died near the same time as my grandfather, in the 50’s, were well-preserved gray granite with contemporary script. There were many Messicks, Morrises, Harrington’s, (Harrington, Delaware is another place in my memory of places to look, but I haven’t remembered that at this point), Beebe’s, but no Newmans. After walking about half the lot I drove over to the church itself to seek assistance. A woman in the office gave me the name and phone for Don Mitchell, the caretaker. An old voice answered the phone. I gave the name and year to him while parked on 4th Street and he said he’d look & get back to me. It was getting to be late for making the trip to Greenbackville then all the way to DC, but I felt the need to try. I made a quick sandwich in the tailgate with leftover sausage from the night before. A man in his 50’s with a worn look on his face came by and went for the blue-green 1970’s pickup parked behind me – I asked if he had enough room to get out. “Not going, I’m at the hospital”. He entered the passenger side and sat while I went back to my sandwich. Wasn’t in the mood to chat.
Don called back a few minutes later. I heard, “We have a record of Alexander Newman”.
“We do NOT have a record of him, I’m sorry.”
I expressed some confusion about this and asked for suggestions. He didn’t have much to offer so I thanked him and hung up.
In my mother’s records, some of which I have with me in the car, are some notes indicating this cemetary – but now can’t find these notes so am working from picture-memory. I remember a “receipt” – a handwritten note in an envelope addressed to E A Newman, and thought perhaps it’s not related to his resting place, but that of one of his relatives. I forgot that I had scanned all these documents so could look at them on my computer – if I had remembered, it would have led me further than I got while I was there.
But I was feeling pressure to get to Greenbackville, over an hour and a half away, so I could make it to DC and Sarah’s before it was dark. I reluctantly pulled out of Lewes, wishing I could spend a few days in Lewes looking for Alex Newman and enjoying the pleasant town. I took off south on the local highway, immediately hitting Friday afternoon beach traffic headed to Rehobeth. A few blocks later I was able to turn onto DE24 heading towards Millsboro. Home of Congressman Condrey, according to the elegant signage heading into town. Millsboro was a humble mix of local commercial businesses and modest prefab or victorian houses; the only temptation a place with a stenciled paint sign “The Family Restaurant.”
On 24, I pass a place called “Holly Lake” with a large funky painted sign in front of a lodge-like store, or restaurant, or campground supply – it was hard to tell without turning around and stopping. A few miles further is the Nanticoke Indian Museum, but again I don’t have time to stop.
At the Azafran cafe this morning a couple sat next to me, older, and I asked them if they were locals. They were. Gail was elegant and bespectacled with a golden-grey bob; Cole a stately white-crowned gentleman with bright blue eyes and friendly face. I inquired about the Methodist cemetary and whether they had any tips on finding someone there. They didn’t know but thought there would be an office I could check. I filled them in on what I was doing, seeking family and touring the country. Told them I was going to Greenbackville next. Cole was the talkative one, and remarkably was originally from Greenbackville. He filled me in on what’s there now – has become a bedroom community for Wallops Island where NASA is developing the unmanned rockets. I asked if there was still a downtown & he said, “oh yeah, it’s still there, you might find some people from back then there.” He told me that since I was going down there I’d be remiss to not spend time seeing Assatigue and Chincoteague, the two barrier Islands just off the coast there which are quite stunning. Chincoteague is known for its wild ponies. I had to stay on schedule.
Still on 24 I drive through the middle of a huge industrial site, a full mile of structures with a man-bridge connecting the buildings one side to the other. The signage for Montaire indicated chicken processing, and it smelled it as well. Surrounging fields were half-high with wheat and corn.
I turned onto US 113 heading south towards Selbyville and the state line with Maryland. I’m thinking I’ll spend an hour in Greenbackville if there’s a coffee shop. If not I’ll just take a spin around with the camera then move on.
I went through Selbyville, didn’t see anything from 113 but perhaps there is an interesting downtown. I pass the exit for US50 E/W, heading to Ocean Pines and Ocean City MD one direction and Salisbury MD and Washington DC the other. After this the four lanes drop to two with a dashed yellow between them. At 4:00pm I’m making good time and expect I can get to DC from Greenbackville before 9pm, maybe even 8:30 if the road allows.
This part of the world is wheat and corn fields, chicken farms, divided by woods and marked with an occasional intersection – it’s so remote I’m amazed that I ran into someone in Lewes who was from the place I’m going.
I pass a sign indicating that Snow Hill, MD off to the right has an historic district and a big furnace to look at. The town name seems familiar and I add it to the list of places I would see if I had time. (Later I realize that the church in Snow Hill is where my mother’s parents were married). At this point I turn onto MD12 towards the Virginia border and my destination. I pass through Girdletree, a few brick buildings and houses, including an historic bank building and a firehouse. A mile south of Girdletree in the midst of corn on one side and soybeans on the other is a small building with a weathered sign on a post, “Timeless Tavern.” In front six pickup trucks were parked, their owners presumably inside. Then Stockton, a mostly abandoned looking place with a firehouse, 2 brick buildings with storefronts across an intersection, both empty and decrepit, but for a “for rent” sign in one. I turn left onto VA679 at the Virginia border, a/k/a State Line road…literally. I pass a sign for a golf course, which seems out of place. I wonder if Greenbackville is some gated community with polo-shirt-and-sperry-topsider-wearing clans. There is a Prudential office in a house. Woods. An old cemetary, Union, on the Maryland side of the road. A stone-walled entrance to something called “Captain’s Cove” – a country club or planned community on the Virginia side. Then the road curves south, crosses a creek and the trees clear and there’s a few 1940-ish clapboard houses in modest relation to each other suggesting a place.
Google’s map woman, who I call Gigi, tells me to turn down Church Street. I see Church and turn left, passing a few more houses and see a church at the end of the block’s T. Gigi says “you have arrived at your destination.” Have I? A plain off-white shingle house with a porch and grassy yard on a block with a few others of the same. I continue to the church and turn right towards the water. There isn’t a soul about. I spot a store-like building on the left with a soda machine outside and a couple of guys leaning on a pickup truck in blue t-shirts. I park and go to the “store,” stenciled “Momma’s” which is closed. A post office resides inside, but no one is manning it. Turning around I eye the blue shirts and approach.
“Hi how ya doing?” I ask, eyeing firefighter logos on the shirtpockets.
“Ok” they say, curious but wary.
“I have kind of a funny question for you. My grandfather was raised here in the early 1900’s, and I’m trying to find someone who might know something about it. Any suggestions?”
At this the fellows relax and we’re all happy to be out here on a sunny day with something interesting to discuss. Randall is the older of the two, with white goatee and a pate. Jeremy, a rugged man in his 30’s, lets him take the lead. Randall talks about Shirley and her husband (Mitchell?) as the oldest residents, who may have been around before 1920. He mentions a fellow volunteer firefighter named Brian. “Don’t be fooled by his young appearance, he knows more about Greenbackville than anyone around.” Brian is the town historian. Apparently just finished cutting his lawn last they saw. Given Greenbackville only has about 3 streets, it’s easy to know what your neighbors have been up to as recently as a few minutes ago. Randall first tells me where he lives then calls him and tells him to come over to the post office, “there’s a lady here from New York with an interesting question. It will be worth your while, will give you a chance to use your town historian hat.”
Brian shows up a few minutes later, also in a pickup truck. A 30-ish guy with russet moustache and a thoughtful look, in the same blue t-shirt with the firefighter logo. Brian is author of the town web site and knows a lot about the history of the town which began as an oyster village and saw its heyday during the railroad years of 1870s – 1950s. He’s not sure about the people though, warns me off a long visit to Shirley and suggests I locate the church pastor Paul Winbrow who may have some church records that could be helpful. “He was just about to take a nap when I spoke to him a little while ago, but I’m sure his wife Theresa wouldn’t mind if you drove by.”
We talked a bit longer about the town. The town store closed a while back, the post office moved into the space. Momma’s next door closed a few years ago; only the soda machine functions there now. The town has 2 soda machines, a post office, and the Crusty Crab restaurant down by the water, which seems to be a point of pride. They give me directions to Paul’s house and we bid farewell.
Paul’s house and the house next door are identical except for a few decorations outside. A first I go to the wrong door and the gentleman who answers points me next door. Jewel Song changes driveways and I go up to the glass-screened door to ring the bell. Greeted by two dogs, one black and one beige, adorable little yappers with white muzzles and wide eyes who twirl and bark feistily until finally a silver-haired fellow in red M&M pajama bottoms and a 2009 festival t-shirt appears. I introduce myself and mention that Brian sent me over for help locating my grandfather. Paul leads me to the kitchen with a look of perplexed amazement. He may have just woken up.
Paul tells me he could help me, but it would take time. He recalled the first search he did, in the early 90’s, for a relative of a friend that took him four months and several trips in the region. I tell him I’m fine with staying in touch and letting him take his time. He gives me a clipboard of blank paper to write on. We sit at the kitchen table in the modest but comfortable house. A scented candle centerpiece perfumes the air. There are placemats and a breakfast bar. I begin writing down the information I have from memory. Paul begins talking about how it has been a while since he has done any research like this but he was quite busy with it in the 1990’s. I tell him about my sister who has done a lot of work on the family history, but we’re missing some links. Its a n enthusiastic conversation with some stories about chasing down relatives for other people. It’s remarkable I’ve found someone who will not only look through the church records, but will be able to do a lot of research in the community. I ask about the church work – “I imagine it’s not full-time, pretty small…” “About 150, yes. I used to work at NASA, now I’m at Captain’s Cove.”
By way of talking about families, he mentions he lost both of his parents 3 years earlier and I interject that i too lost my parents, last year. He pauses and stares at me, then says, “how do you get over it?”
I look at him long, then say, “I’m still grieving.”
What followed was unexpected, a tragic story. I listened. It seemed I was meant to be there for reasons beyond my simple search.
At some point, he had stood up, but now he sat down. “So this, this is just what I need. A project. Something to take my mind off of all this…this is going to be very helpful. I really have to thank Brian for sending you over here. I’m very grateful to you.”
We exchanged contact information and I bid farewell, taking his hand in both of mine. The beige dog escorted me to my car, happily frolicking.
I drove down the bay road to the edge, next to an old oyster shed. It was the most tranquil place I’d been in a long time. I got out of the car for a while and walked along the crushed oyster shells that covered the path. The water quietly lapped and bees hummed in the lace. In the distance was Chincoteague, dotted with houses on the bay side. The sun was sliding towards the horizon but the light was entrancing. I left, again reluctantly.
I reached DC around 10pm, after a long, mostly unremarkable drive on US50, with a stop in Snow Hill for a quick bite. “Quick” turned out to be a 45-minute unremarkable Ceasar salad in the Blue Dog Cafe, a staple of evening dining and entertainment there for some decades. The service was friendly but, well, slow. I itched in my seat, wolfed the salad down and left exact change.
In DC, Sarah helped me get Jewel Song in the slender alley garage and we schlepped in my cooler and some bags. I hit the bed and passed out.
Washington DC and King William, VA
June 16, 2013: Sarah just returned from five years living in Senegal, working for an NGO, and now lives in “a big rambly house” with 6 housemates in the Mt Pleasant neighborhood – just north of Adams Morgan. We attended seminary at Shambhala Mountain Center in 2008, the last time I saw her. The housemates were fairly scarce but one of them had two cats, who were continually around us as we unpacked my bags and cooler and got ready for sleep. Sarah is a very kind hostess. She arranged her meditation cushions on the floor and offered me her bed: “ive been living in Africa for five years, I’m used to sleeping on the floor.”
Saturday morning we wake and go to the DC Shambhala center for a vajrayana practice weekend, which I’m grateful to join for the morning. I haven’t been able to do my practice since being on the road – the compressed schedule, and getting accustomed to sleeping in different locations each day have not permited me an hour each morning in a conducive place. The DC Shambhala center is a bright, enticing space with a fountain of good energy and a beautiful shrine room.
We practiced until 12 then went to lunch and caught up on the changes in our lives the last few months. I spent the afternoon doing laundry and walking around Adams Morgan looking for a good cafe with internet access that didn’t have a noisy crowd or blasting dance music. Tryst was recommended, but they were very loungey and didn’t offer internet on the weekends. I found Filter on 20th and S Street, just the kind of geeky little coffee-snob joint I’d become fond of in New York.
I’d made plans to have dinner with Sarah so spent the afternoon trying to relax and enjoy the neighborhoods but found myself feeling edgy and distracted instead. The previous few days I’d felt somewhat relaxed and now the city energy was subtly taunting me. I walked 7 blocks down T street to dinner, admiring the rowhouses. I love the variety of old house architecture in DC and often think the neighborhoods bordering Rock Creek Park would be where I would want to live if I was so disposed…but I feel city living is something I won’t want to do again for a while. When I was sitting on the edge of Greenbackville, nothing but bees and a few birds around, it suited me. There was so much space, quiet, stillness. I could use a few more days of that.
Sunday morning Sarah helped me load the cooler with re-frozen blocks of ice and my few provisions, then we said goodbye and she pedaled off to another day of practice. I squeezed Jewel Song out into the alley and made for Beach Drive in the park. I was going to meet an old friend from my 1980’s Frazer days who now lives in Springfield VA, just south of DC. I also needed a coffee stop with internet, and Grounded Coffee in a small strip mall in south Alexandria came up on Google. The place was decorated like a pre-school with bright colors and indestrutable formica tables, but they had a bakery on site and a decent mini-quiche. I worked there for a couple of hours then left to meet Margaret a few miles down the road. As I was leaving a female jazz singer was taking her place in front of a guitarist in one corner of the shop, dressed for a lounge.
The Springfield Restaurant and Pizzeria where I was meeting Margaret for lunch is within a strip mall just off of I-495 but I took Franconia Road through the typical suburban scene of…housing development, strip mall, strip mall, strip mall. We had a nice table in this greek diner with good light from a large front window. We caught up on the past few years. Margaret and I met working at Friendly’s when I was in high school. She lived with us for a wile in a spare room my mother rented. Over the years we haven’t really kept in touch well as our lives have led us in different directions, but there were some wild times back in the day, so we have a long bond. Margaret’s a romance writer, working on her first novel and working back from a couple of years of unemployment during the downturn. Now has a good job in marketing and dotes on her sisters’ kids. She’s planning a trip to see one of those sisters, now living in Northern Ireland and running a mountain biking park.
I have one more stop before heading to the Outer Banks, so we finish up lunch and I plot my route in the parking lot.
The REI in Woodbridge, VA is centered in one of those “newfangled outdoor mall” developments – a new construction designed to mimic a small-town downtown, with chain retail stores opening onto a perfectly landscaped grid of “streets,” surrounded by wedges of parking lots, surrounded further by (in this case) a large townhouse development called Potomac City. Nary a tree above 10 feet, the whole thing feels completely artificial and repellant. I think of the empty homes in Greenbackville and this swath of new-everything development, and it epitomizes something of the materialistic confusion of our culture. Also, there are green bubble-shaped speakers in the landscaping along the walkways, playing “feel-good” rock from the bushes.
I find REI, get my mosquito netting and escape as quickly as possible.
South on I-95 towards Richmond, deciding to make up time. But I continually run into sluggish traffic. Seeing a chance to circumvent on a more interesting blue road, I exit at Kings Dominion and take VA30 east towards King William, which I was curious to see because of the name. There is also a town further north along the Chesapeake watershed called King George. Perhaps there are a few more royalty here that I’m missing. Horse farms and rolling grass lawns drifted past on this two-lane road. A boat with two motors rode on the back of a truck in front of me. I was heading to West Point, VA, where I would turn right and re-enter the Interstate system on I-64 going around Norfolk.
King William is a county on the “middle peninsula” of Virginia’s Chesapeake shorline, and boasts the oldest courthouse in continuous use in the United States, built in 1725. The farms and trees gave way to a brief array of modern conveniences before returning to nature. Noodling along at the speed limit I saw a few interesting older buildings further east but nothing to get out of the car for. Then an intersection with an old store, Jim Hall’s. Hand-painted and worn, with a patriotic palette of hand-drawn adverts pasted to the front posts, I turned into the small lot. Not a soul was about. The sign for BBQ should have enticed me to enter, but I hesitated, knowing I could be getting to the campground well after dark. Also I can’t eat BBQ because of an allergy to peppers. So I took a few photos and hopped back in the car. If I had just taken 10 minutes to go in and meet whoever was there, I would have saved myself from what happened next.
Turning from Hall’s back onto VA30, I accelerated up a long grade. Had not been looking at the speedometer when I crested the hill and a trooper was coming the other direction – I looked and saw my needle near 70 and knew I was done for. In the rear view, flashing blues made a u-turn. I pulled over long and waiting for him to catch up to me and was in a lovely spot with a view of a farm and pink skylight. The youngish officer came to the window and I started the conversation with a truly sincere “I am so sorry.” I explained I was accelerating from a dead stop at Jim Hall’s and had not intended to go over the limit, had barely been 10 seconds from the stop I’d made. “Where are you headed?” “The Outer banks.” “Using GPS or something like that?” he says, looking off into the distance, not really interested. “Some. I like the scenic routes, don’t like Interstates.” He was very gracious, took my license and registration, went back to his vehicle. I prayed I would get a warning from this polite fellow, but he came back with a summons on a clipboard, a large duplicate form, indicating speeding at 70 in a 55mph zone. Court date (at the oldest continuously operating court in the US) was August 1st. I flashed a thought on my itinerary and panicked for a moment knowing I was expected to be in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “This is not a confession of guilt if you sign here, so you can come back and contest the charge in court on this date.” “What if I can’t be here on that day?” “you can call this number and schedule another date. Or you can pre-pay the fine, plead guilty, and resolve it by mail.” My mind plays frantically with the options – I don’t feel guilty, but I really would rather just pay a fine and be free to move on. Yet doesn’t that mean points on my record? I wonder if points are reported to New York. I’ll be getting my insurance renewed when I move to Vermont later this year – what does it all mean?
It’s too much to process. I say, knowing it’s fruitless, “I’m sorry, this doesn’t feel right to me, could you not give me a warning? I just left Hall’s and over-accelerated.” “Well, you can defend yourself in court. 70 is 15mph over the limit, that’s just about reckless driving around here. Besides, I already wrote the summons.” He’s just looking around while he talks, not really interested in my problems. I reluctantly sign the document and he gives me a copy and tells me I’m close to West Point, not much further. Seems he wants to both help me find my way and keep me from spending much more time in his jurisdiction. I pull out and set the cruise control at 55, stewing with shame and irritation.
I stewed for another 20 minutes then found some things to take my mind elsewhere. I pass the containerboard mill in West Point puffing steam by the bridge, owned by a company I used to work with at my old job. Crossing the border to North Carolina, the ocean felt close and the Chesapeake Expressway promised to “Get me there faster.” Twilight faded to night and Jewel Song crossed the last of several bridges over Chesapeake inlets that day, over the Albemarle sound into Kitty Hawk. We found the Adventure Bound campground a few turns later. I set up without dinner, the sound of crickets and some kind of weird bird call shreiking from the woods as I drifted to sleep.
North Carolina: Outer Banks, Creedmoor and Durham
June 22, 2013: The porch at the Durham Shambhala center has nice porch furniture, a flowering vine, and a view of the small front garden and Rutherford Street. Across the street an identical bungalow, worn of paint, apparently vacant, but clean, stares back at me and invites my imagination to fix it up and plant a few things. The 7:00am “Early Bird” open sitting on Wednesday mornings was apparently a figment, for no one had appeared, except for the parade of Duke U. Hospital employees who continually walked by to the bus stop just a few yards away. Seeing me on the porch many of them smiled and waved politely. I wondered if the Durham Shambhala folks had ever though of having a schill sitting on the porch tempting people to stop by on their way home in the afternoon.
My mind wasn’t settling very well but that was to be expected. I had been driving for days and hadn’t experienced the stillness of meditation since Saturday in Washington, in spite of the empty beauty of the beach campgrounds of Oregon Inlet.
This is because the beach campgrounds in the Outer Banks are exposed to sun and steady wind, both of which wear on me. It was difficult to be outside for long, so I avoided sitting at my campsite. The search for a sheltered place led me the familiar – coffee houses and restaurants, so I could use internet and update entries. Had I sought woods there may have been some solace from the elements. I am used to my café comforts, but in the end they weren’t conducive to accomplishing much either contemplatively or productively. Writing and meditation seem to require me to be away from people, not among them.
I left the Outer Banks Tuesday around 2:00 for Kathy & Jerry’s in Creedmoor, a 4 hour drive by US highway 64, flat coastal plain lined most of the way with tall trees and few interruptions. Dinner with two families beckoned; I only paused at Mackey’s Peanuts, a home for fudge, nuts, boiled peanuts, and firearms.
Dinner with everyone Tuesday was a simple affair but pivotal as it was my first time taking out the box of Mom’s albums and scrapbook and sharing old pictures of her and our ancestors, and family lore. Carol says this gives her a new perspective on Mom. I admit it’s what I hope for, as Mom’s estrangements from my half-sisters has been a puzzle for all of us, and we each have different pieces. There are a lot of mysteries about our Mom that we have yet to unravel, which were completely impenetrable when she was alive because she wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t talk much about the past. I know she was a good-hearted person who cared deeply about people, even though she was not outwardly engaged or skillful in how she maintained relationships. It’s partly my aspiration that visiting my half-sisters and sharing something of her life through images and stories we all might settle the unknowns to some peaceful end.
This week started with Father’s Day on the Outer Banks and ended with my 45th birthday in Creedmoor. On Wednesday afternoon, after the porch meditation in Durham and a stop at Joe Van Gogh for coffee and writing I returned to Creedmoor and hung around the house with Kathy, my niece’s new baby Sirius, and my nephew Nick. Nick spent most of his time in his room working on his music interests or sleeping – he works the night shift at the local BJ’s. Kathy and I spent the afternoon playing with the baby, the rat terrier Finn, and catching up on the last several months. Then Finn found half a dark chocolate bar I’d forgotten was in my handbag and ate it. Being only 16 lbs, this was a problem. Kathy had to run out to the Rite Aid for Hydrogen Peroxide to force the dog to throw it up. I was embarrassed I’d not thought to clear out the bag before leaving it on the floor. It’s the kind of fog I’ve been in.
I explored some of the Falls Lake recreational parkland over the course of the week, trying to clear my fatigue. Of the several different sections of the park, my favorites are the trailheads you can access without paying any park fees – these are dotted on every road that crosses the lake. Anywhere there was a water crossing, you could find a pull-off on either end where a path would lead down to the lake and often to a branch of the NC Mountains-to-sea trail, which starts in Asheville and eventually will end on the Outer Banks. Unfortunately one other common sight in North Carolina is the litter – anywhere there is a pull-off, there is an area by the water where fishing in a beautiful place does not preclude leaving behind whatever wrappers, cans, tins, papers, etc. one no longer needs.
I found one such place, slightly less sullied than some, and did my annual birthday practice, a short liturgy called The Elixir of Life which uses the Four Reminders of Buddhism to re-inspire dedication to living and practicing towards awakenment. Human birth is precious but existence is always changing; death is inevitable and comes without warning; all of our actions have inconceivable consequences (karma), Samsara is endless (the mindless cycling of lifetime after lifetime looking for happiness through non-virtuous means). It’s a beautifully written practice. I found myself able to connect with the words, and occasionally the meaning raised some appreciation in my heart for the journey I am now on. But I longed for a practice environment my mind couldn’t have any doubt about. Practice on the spot of wherever I find myself is proving to be difficult.
I stopped by the Lyons Pick-your-own farm on Munns road near Creedmoor and wandered into the fields of blueberry bushes at the back of the farm, waving back at the Mexican farm hands in floppy straw hats picking vegetables in the rows. There are few places like this around down here – many of the farms surrounding this area are dormant tobacco farms, one or two raising horses or hay. The area is flowering meadows and old “bacca barns” interspersed with new house developments. The population of the R-D area has been growing rapidly the last decade or so. All around farm acreage is for sale.
Kathy and I spent Saturday morning working on ancestor research, reconciling some of the old photographs I have with the names she has in the family chart. Then I left for the other side of town so to speak – Fuquay-Varina, where my cousin (my Dad’s niece) lives, and a whole other family tree is rooted.
We made a field trip a few turns from the house to Cedar Creek Gallery – a home to several artists working in pottery, glassblowing, textiles, wood, and jewelry for 30 years. The grounds are quiet and lovely, full of gardens and converted ‘bacca barns, and we were able to watch one of the glassblowers in residence there while he worked on a vase. Much of the work for sale in the gallery/shop is from artists in North Carolina, but they also represent similar artists from throughout the country. There were many fine things and we found a mug that’s serving as my camp cup from here on.
North Carolina: Fuquay-Varina
June 24, 2013: I’ve awoken from a 2-and-a-half hour nap at 7:30pm in the princess bed at my cousin’s house in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. Something has me under the weather, when we came back from a grocery trip I came upstairs and fell asleep immediately.
I have been in NC for a week and had planned to leave today for Dante, VA, but decided to wait, I was so punky. The constant movement has been hard to get used to. I’m discovering a near-constant irritation that seems to arise from the days of movement, groundlessness, and the natural claustrophobia of spending a lot of time visiting people I know. I’m used to being alone in the mornings, but haven’t found a way to carve out time for myself to be still before the days events, people, or itineraries get rolling. I’m craving quiet and an environment where I can rise and practice, exercise, contemplate, comfortably and undisturbed. My attempts to do this in the last week or so have been semi-successful a couple of times, but have not provided the space for solace and perspective that I expected to be the nature of my days. Hence I haven’t been able to write anything about this past week – my mind is frozen with discursive thoughts and fatigue. I don’t know what to do about this but to keep trying to make that space.
Fuquay and Varina were two small old NC towns, now united with a group of chain restaurants and stores as the glue. Each has a tiny downtown that has been more or less preserved, and Raleigh’s suburban spread has occurred around them like water around two rocks. My cousin Sarah (Sal to me, and I am Sue to them) and her husband Bob have lived here for five years, and had another 15 in nearby Holly Springs. Their house is comfortable with an open-fenced screen porch that allows you to feel you are outside but without the bug population. My room is furnished with old furniture that has been in my father’s family for generations, and it smells of old wood and familiarity. After retiring from a Marine career that took them to Hawaii, San Francisco, and other places, Bob has had a good run in a civilian computer science job nearby. Sal has volunteered at local museums and societies and worked for American Airlines for many years. Their kids and their kid’s families are close by, and my Aunt comes down to visit a couple of times a year.
Sal, her sister Mar, and I grew up together more or less with only a few years between us, I the youngest. Being without siblings of my own at home, going to their place a few times a year where I could romp in the country around their house with them and hear stories of my ancestor’s escapades was a great joy. That house was the Dowlin Forge home in the Dowlin part of my family for many generations. I wrote about it here.
Bob’s early manifestation as a crisp Marine has shifted in recent years to avid Harley man. He and Sal make regular long-distance trips and they have a group of close friends they ride with. Bob brought a few of these fellows by on Saturday, dodging rainstorms on their way home from an event to the south. I’d been hearing about Buck and Capp for years from my Aunt who has met them several times on her trips down here and from Sarah when talking about their gardening skills…she has a new “water feature” in her garden thanks to them. Bob was being ribbed for having told them “clear sailing” after checking the weather radar on his iPhone before they took off this morning – as it happened they got drenched by one of North Carolina’s passing thunderstorms, which appeared as a “small” green blob on the screen that apparently had been centered directly over them the entire time they were riding.
I left Monday after spending the morning updating ancestors on my father’s side with Sal, who is along with her mother, Aunt Liz, a thorough keeper of family records. I was headed for the mountains, and Dante, Virginia, a coal town developed by my great grandfather Tyler in the early 1900’s when he was Vice President of the Clinchfield Coal Company.
Into the Mountains
June 30, 2013. Leaving the piedmont I took a long detour to NC route 901 through farm towns. Coming upon Union Grove I spied a classic general store and stopped. Josh Cockerham bought the abandoned store in 2007 and revived it as an old-fashioned and new-gear retail outfit, supplying local funky hand-made pottery and household furnishings as well as Case hunting knives and other variety useful to the rural person. The building was originally across the street as the town schoolhouse at the turn of the last century, then was relocated and reappropriated as a general store with additions to provide a porch and living quarters.
Josh confirmed that the “Cook Shack” I had passed across the road a few blocks was worth a stop – so I took Jewel Song over there to get a tea and see what was there.
I met Pal sitting outside eating a bowl of corn flakes. When I approached she scurried to finish it and open the door for me. Inside was a treasure-trove of bluegrass memorabilia floor-to-ceiling, a small stage with mix-and-match chairs and microphones to the right and a small dinette of 6 orange & yellow formica booths to the left behind a red-cushioned pew. Freckled and motherly, Pal fixed a tea for me and I started telling her about my trip. Out of a dark corner a white-bearded fellow in a baseball cap and plaid shirt appeared and settled into a chair as if he lived there – her husband Miles. He reminded me so much of an old friends’ father who had died this year. Miles went into the back while I was talking with Pal and came out with a small wood block with a cutout side and 3 tack nails pounded into the crevice. “I finally got myself one of these, been wantin’ one for years…” he says as he hands it to me to examine. I look at him quizzically, as he expected so he could deliver the punch line: “how do you like my “tack” shelter?”
I made my way to Boone, NC – one of the many places in the south and midwest named for the 19c pioneer. The Appalachian Trail passes by here, and it’s home to Appalachian State University, known as a top school for artists in the east. Appalachian State always has conjured an image of artists working in rusticity in the steep woods of the Blue Ridge mountains, miles from civilization. It could not have been more surprising – a modern, brick-laid campus of 16,000 in a thriving town of 32,000. The blend of college-town, old settler families, and AT through-hikers gives it a hippie vibe on a pedigreed stage. Steep green mountains surround on all sides and the town itself is multi-level and requires good legs to get around on foot. Locavore food & sustainability sentiments have infiltrated Wataug County, and the farm-to-table movement is evident in the restaurant menus and markets.
My campsite, Flintrock, was a last-minute find browsing from the parking lot of a church in Boone at 6:00pm. It turned out to be one of the most comfortable I found on my trip. I took a cabin for the night and reveled in having a porch and peace & quiet among the campers around me. A rushing creek runs through the middle of the grounds. The sound of traffic on the road is closer than one might want but the manager is friendly and helpful and the cabins are clean and comfortable, and there is a neighborhoodly feel to the size of it.
I could have lingered for days here, exploring the town and the oldest mountains, trails, and rivers in the Appalachian range, but this was Monday, Dante’s museum closed at 3:30 on Tuesday and did not re-open again until Thursday. It was a few hours away, and another hour to my campsite in Breaks, VA. I stocked up on camp stuff and headed to the car…running behind as usual. I had a parking ticket for overstaying the 2-hour limit. Luckily, Boone has a system to deal with this quickly. I walked into the closest store, ticket in hand and approached the cashiers. Before I could even ask, they said “oh do you need us to validate that?” “that would be great – where do I need to take it?” “We take it for you.” Fantastic.
I headed to Breaks directly rather than arrive in Dante and have to drive mountain roads in the dark. I would have to call the museum phone number to see if I could get an appointment on their closed day. The drive through the mountains took me through a corner of Tennessee into far southwest Virginia – the “tail”. It was slow-going, the steering wheel see-sawing back and forth on the looping switchbacks for the better part of 2 hours on VA 80. At one point, going about 35 up a winding hill, two pickup trucks shot past me, mufflers screaming. The speed limit sign said 55, but Jewel Song’s cargo was bouncing around in back already and her driver was trying to get used to the manual shifting options.
At Breaks Interstate Park, on the Virginia-Kentucky border, the young park ranger warbled about the distinction of being “interstate” (“only one of two in the whole country”) and I barely recognized we were both speaking English. The rain had been coming off and on all day but the sun came out for the evening. I was at the end of an empty loop save for one other site with a couple and their child, a flat ridge with steep slopes on three sides, and plenty of mosquitos. I lit the bug sticks and attempted for the 2nd time to set up the Kelty tailgate tent so I could sleep comfortably with Jewel Song’s hatch open. It was missing instructions, so after 20 minutes I decided not to waste the last light fussing with it and instead made dinner in the orange sun coming through the trees. Then I covered Jewel Song with mosquito netting and rolled out the bed mat and slept, half listening for bears.
The next morning, it began to rain while I was in the shower. Early enough that most people were still asleep. I had no phone reception and the campground did not have wi-fi. I asked the ranger about coffee places and he had pointed me to a place about 2 miles down 80 into Kentucky, Elkhorn City – a place called the Rusty Fork. Who could resist?
It was more like 10 miles, going down slowly behind coal haulers and past the grave of the “Unknown Confederate Soldier”, but the ground leveled out and an intersection with a traffic light appeared with a long wood building on one corner. All around, the only vehicles besides the coal-haulers are pickup trucks. Not only did the Rusty Fork have coffee, there was a guy sitting at a table with a laptop. “Do they have wi-fi?” I asked him. “yep.” He smiled through a moustache. I took up a table by the curtained window with my laptop and watched the rain. The inside is painted red and decorated with depression-era kitchen pantry and bluegrass music stars photographs, including a signed one of Elvis. The waitress was blond and tan in a pink shirt, cheerful disposition. Took my order and kept checking on my coffee as I spent 3 hours catching up on uploads and a blog entry. I had called the museum contact numbers as soon as I had gotten phone reception, but had not received a call back. I left the restaurant at 2:00 for the 90 minute drive through the mountains to Dante, hoping I would be able to find someone in the town to connect with.