Josna Rege

287. Anywhere, anywhere

In 1950s, Books, Childhood, Family, Nature, reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, travel on October 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm
Spring Morning (illustration: E. H. Shepard)

Spring Morning (illustration: E. H. Shepard)

Some years ago Mum told me that one day, driving down a road not far from home, she suddenly realized that she didn’t know where she was. This must have been about the time when she first began to notice that something was wrong. It wasn’t very long before this and other signs of disorientation in time and place gave the rest of the family cause for concern, too, and we began to take steps to make sure that Mum didn’t go out in the car alone. But every time I drive down that road I too have a moment of wondering where I am; I think it is because that particular stretch of road could in fact be anywhere.

photo 2

It is in an area of farmland between our town and the next, with cornfields on either side and wide open sky in all directions as far as the eye can see; no other markers of place except for the tell-tale turning of the leaves in the Fall, and unusual for New England in being a long, perfectly straight stretch of road with no twists and turns or ups and downs, and no houses. Only corn, which, in the late summer has grown as high as an elephant’s eye, leads one to believe that one is in Oklahoma, Kansas, or just about anywhere in the American Midwest. So after my initial panic, I take a deep breath, relax into that timeless moment, and drive on, trusting in the road itself, and knowing that soon, all too soon, I will be back on track, fully re-oriented, and saddled once again with my long list of errands and uncompleted tasks.

Increasingly, every moment of the day is another check mark on the To-Do List. Even on our days off, perhaps especially on our days off, that list seems to be never-ending. A person is seen as unmotivated if she or he does not have clearly defined goals and, in our fast-paced society, being self-directed, “in the driver’s seat,” is considered a necessity, even a virtue. But how much are we really in control when we are at the wheel? More often, we seem to be harnessed and driven by pressures and goals set elsewhere and by others.

When I was five, my Uncle Ted gave me a blue hardcover copy of A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, one of the few books that I have managed to carry around the world with me and still hold and treasure. It has long-since lost its dust-jacket, some of its pages are torn, and the young me dared to color in E. H. Shepard’s classic illustrations. But battered as it is, it is still wonderfully intact. Whatever its condition, the poems in it have become part of me, and give recourse and expression to moods that overtake me as much as an adult as they did when I was very young. One of my favorites is Spring Morning, in which the child, wondering where he is going, knows deep down, that he, certainly, does not know; and furthermore, that it matters not one whit. The world is alive and full of wonder, and she can float through it like a cloud on invisible currents, safe and free. If we all knew this, then we need not panic when we are suddenly overtaken by that strong sense that we don’t know where we are or where we are going. We don’t.

photo

Note on punctuation: In many of the versions of this poem I found on the internet, the punctuation was wrong. A.A. Milne wrote, “Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know. “ Note the period after the second ‘anywhere,’ and the italicized ‘I’: both are essential to the reading of that line, which comes at the end of the first verse and again at the very last.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

 

 

 

 

 

286. Foxfire

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Nature, seasons, Stories, United States, Work on October 12, 2014 at 1:56 am
(from foxfirefood.com)

(from foxfirefood.com)

. . . a name commonly applied to several species of bioluminescent fungi that grow on rotting wood in damp forests (like the Southern Appalachians) during the warmer months (The Foxfire Book)

This evening, feeling melancholy, hard done by, and inclined to self-pity, I went for a short walk in the damp night air. With invisible mists rising all around me, I was in that kind of mood where one begins to wallow in the miserably pleasurable certainty of being misunderstood by the whole world. Slipping on a peacoat and wrapping a woolen shawl several times around my neck, I flung myself dramatically out into the dark, stomping up the hill to the border of our town, where both the sidewalk and the streetlights end abruptly, and striding back down again, like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme.

On the way down I paused for a moment at the quince bush, where one small but perfect specimen the size of an apricot came off in my hand without the slightest resistance. Velvety-cold, it glowed yellow in my cupped palm as I bore it home. Just about hitting my stride as I was coming back into the house again, I reflected that if it had been a different time of day—more likely, if I had been at a different stage of life—I might have gone on walking almost indefinitely. My legs were aching, but from disuse rather than overuse, and I craved adventure, defined, on this Saturday night in October, as just about anything other than grading papers or working on my deferred taxes.

P1080488

Still bundled up in my outdoor clothes—for in this ornery mood woe betide anyone, myself included, who dared suggest that I might turn up the heat—I huddled in front of my glowing laptop as if it were a fire in a cave of yore and scanned my Facebook feed, prepared to take exception to just about anything. There was a review of a new book about hoarding (which has just been added to the latest DSM) which purported to “depathologize” the practice. After all, one person’s hoarding is another person’s collecting. DSM-5 defines hoarding disorder as characterized by the persistent difficulty of discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. I curled a misanthropic lip at those “others” who failed to value the items I chose to keep, pathologizing my perfectly harmless predilection for printed matter. Defiantly, I posted a link to the review on the page of my Facebook decluttering group and hoped, like the man in the Monty Python skit who wanted an argument, that someone would take the bait. But no one did; all it drew was a disappointingly cheery Like.

As I glared round the room in search of something else to focus my wrath on, I was overtaken by the thought of what my bookshelves would look like five, fifty years hence if the house were to be abandoned. Years ago Andrew and I had stumbled upon one such scene, in a broken-down barn in Concord in the woods of Old Road to Nine-Acre Corner (the longest street name I have ever encountered, by the way; the street sign reads, “Old Road to N.A.C”), where we retrieved a rain-soaked old medical manual and attempted to restore it, but in vain. With my eyes in soft focus, I contemplated the wall of books in the dining room, considering how rarely I actually opened any of them, and wondering what they really meant to me. It was then that the Foxfire books shimmered into view.

P1080487

I plucked the first volume from the shelf and opened it—after how many years! Re-reading the introduction reminded me of the project, begun in 1966 by an idealistic and highly educated young English teacher who started a magazine in Rabun Gap, Georgia, in which high-school students interviewed ordinary Appalachian Mountain folk. These were hard-working people who eked out a subsistence living, doing everything, but everything, themselves. Their matter-of-fact accounts of their lives lit up a generation of young people who set out to learn their skills and carry on their tradition of self-sufficiency.

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie was an elderly woman who, since the death of her husband Ulysses, had lived by herself in a log cabin with no running water, working, working, all the livelong day. The interviewer asked her:

Doesn’t being here alone bother you sometimes?

Aunt Arie freely acknowledged that it got “mighty lonesome”, that she was afraid of snakes, and that the foxes had never allowed her to keep any of her chickens: “they catched th’last one of ‘em.” She did not downplay the difficulties, but neither did she have any regrets:

We made a good life here, but we put in lots’a’time. Many an’many a night I’ve been workin’ when two o’clock come in th’mornin’—cardin’n’spinnin’n’sewin’. They want me t’sell an’move away from here but I won’t do it. It’s just home—‘at’s all. I spent my happiest days here (Foxfire 1: 30).

I looked over at the little quince, still glowing, in the wooden fruit bowl with two pears from my father’s pear tree. Tomorrow the rest of the pears had to be picked and put by before they fell to the ground and rotted. I would make pear sauce for the winter. What was the point of my anger? There was no argument to be had and no-one to have it with.

P1080485

 

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

285. Sometimes a Coincidence

In 2010s, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Nature, places, seasons, Stories, United States on September 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm
(from twowheeltripping.com)

(from twowheeltripping.com)

I live just west of the Quabbin Reservoir, a massive manmade body of water that serves as a major water supply for Boston. It was created in the 1930s by flooding four small towns in central Massachusetts, whose former residents still gather to remember their homes that are no more. Today the Quabbin is a pristine jewel, a home for endangered bald eagles and a haven for wildlife of all kinds.

My regular commute to work takes me round the Quabbin’s northern edge. On the way my carpool partner and I often encounter great blue herons, wild turkeys, deer, foxes, and occasionally even moose. It’s a beautiful ride that makes the longish drive a positive pleasure, at least when I’m not on automatic pilot, just trying to get there or back as quickly as possible. After some early experimentation, I decided that this route was the most enjoyable of my three shortest options, and now I take it all the time; that is, unless something unexpected happens.

On the Thursday before last, the 18th of September, I had left work early to attend a lecture at UMass Amherst to be delivered by R. Radhakrishnan, an old mentor of mine who is now at UC Irvine. The topic of the talk was “What’s Wrong with Humanism?” and I was looking forward to it very much. At the halfway point on my drive, realizing that I wouldn’t have a chance to eat anything until quite late at night, I stopped to pick up a quick sandwich; which turned out to be a mistake, since when I went to restart the car, my key wouldn’t turn in the ignition. When the kind owner of a nearby repair shop sprayed some graphite in the lock to no avail, and told me that the entire lock would have to be replaced, I gave up on what was wrong with humanism, called AAA, and waited resignedly for the tow truck to arrive.

Because I was out of my immediate area, AAA had to send a tow truck from Ware, a town that had been cut off and left behind by the creation of the Quabbin. (I think of it as rather like the child who got left behind when the Pied Piper of Hamelin led the rest of the children into the mountain, never to return. It seems—admittedly, to an outsider—that it has never since been able to thrive.) The driver was a lean, handsome man of about my age who took the whole thing in his stride and allowed me to ride back home in the cab with him once he had secured my car on the flatbed.

We took a different route from my regular one, a long, slow drive down Route 32 from Petersham through Hardwick, New Braintree, Ware, and Belchertown, hugging the eastern length of Quabbin and then coming round the southern edge. It was lots of fun taking in Route 32, little more than a country lane, from high up in the cab of the tow truck and as he pointed out notable landmarks along the way, I marveled at the fact that I had never travelled this particular stretch of the road in more than 30 years of living in the region. It turned out that he too was an immigrant and had come to the US at the same time I had, nearly 45 years ago; also that he was a Scot and was looking forward with great anticipation to the results of the referendum that night. As fellow-immigrants we talked about our parents and children, dual citizenship, belonging and unbelonging; and as country-dwellers we compared notes about the night-time low temperatures in the past week, guessing at the date of the first killing frost, while the beautiful scenery of rural New England rolled on by, conjuring up inevitable feelings of late-summer nostalgia.

That weekend, my car back on the road now, I had the occasion to take a Sunday drive up the western length of Quabbin again, to visit old friends in Royalston, one of the nine towns in the North Quabbin region. On the way back, my mind full of my To Do list for the coming week, I was suddenly brought up short by a road block. They told me that there had been a bad accident up ahead and that the road would be closed for approximately five hours, so motorists were advised to take a different route. I had only two choices: to return home by a more westerly route or to go all the way around the east side of the Quabbin. Since I had neither a map book nor a global positioning system in my car (just the other day, I recalled with some embarrassment, I had been staunchly defending my choice not to purchase one) and the days were getting shorter, I didn’t want to risk going west through a warren of tiny unmarked roads in the gathering dusk. So I took the easterly option, which involved turning around and going up and around the northern boundary of the Quabbin, and back down and around its western and southern borders—guess what, by exactly the same route I had taken the previous Thursday.

What were the odds, I asked myself, that, not having taken that route ever before, I would be traversing it twice in a three-day period? Suddenly I had a powerful feeling that this was something I was meant to do, even though I had no idea why. I turned around very deliberately, and with a strange sense of the convergences of fate, drove up, around and back down those stunningly beautiful country roads, straining to pay attention to every little detail along the way in case it turned out to be significant. Nearly an hour later I was back home, having seen nothing of note—at least nothing that I was aware of —and still wondering what it had all been about. Surely this was too odd to have been nothing more than a random coincidence?

Over the next couple of days, as late summer pivoted into fall, I shared my story with a couple of my friends and asked them the same question. They too marveled at it, and the eminently sensible explanations they offered were eye-opening for me, but were both more and less obvious than the esoteric answer I had been hoping for. Susan said, “Maybe you needed to have taken the route the first time, on the tow truck, so that you knew the way home the second time round.” Carlos said, “Maybe you should pay closer attention all the time, because you never know when you are going to need to notice something.”

It is often said that there is no such thing as a coincidence. But it is a fact that I drove that never-before-taken route twice in a three-day period. I paid attention the first time, as the friendly tow-truck driver pointed things out to me all along the way, and I certainly paid attention the second time, as I strained to find meaning in what had happened. Both times, I was forced to turn off my usual automatic pilot and take in the beauty of my region with fresh eyes. Both times the experience was worthwhile for its own sake. And both times it took me home. Riffing on Freud, one could suggest that “sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.” But is any coincidence ever just a coincidence? Was there something I was meant to learn and have I learned it? The answers are probably staring me in the face.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 282 other followers

%d bloggers like this: