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Out of Place

January 7, 2006 16 comments

At the heart of Central Square here in Keene, New Hampshire stands a bronze sentinel who guards downtown both night and day. As watchmen will, he stands alone, his view of Main Street obscured only twice a year: in October by a towering scaffold of Pumpkin Festival jack-o-lanterns, and in December by a stories-high spruce decorated with Christmas lights. It seems curious that Keene, like so many other New England towns, has a soldier at her center, for he seems out of place in a quiet community, vigilant and alone in an otherwise placid place. And yet these days it seems I stand as he does, a woman alone amongst families, out of place yet stationed in the practice of watching.

When I first moved to Massachusetts and then to New Hampshire, I was one half of an army of two. On visits to see family in Ohio, my then-husband and I countered questions by explaining we’d chosen to live in New England; we’d chosen to remain childless so we could do unthinkable things like live in a Zen Center or sell a perfectly good house to move into an apartment. Although my former in-laws duly visited New England at least once a year to see not one but two wandering sons, my family has never understood my leaving. “Why do you live there?” a sister asked after I’d e-mailed photos of my car buried by a recent snowstorm. Implicit in her question is an accusation: Why do you live there rather than here; why did you leave the state where your family lives?

In my writing and photography, I obsess about place, depicting time and again the same streets, sidewalks, and facades seen on daily dog-walks through town. At times I seem to argue for my town over any other: Isn’t she lovely? And yet my parents in Ohio never visit my blog, for it resides in cyberspace, a place as distant from their lives as New England. Why advocate for a town that is mine only by adoption, a place that is kind but holds no kin? If I’m trying to explain why I chose to live here rather than there, to whom am I speaking? Am I trying to persuade others to follow, or am I trying to convince myself to stay?

Like a soldier who has set down tent-stakes, I know the lay of the land around Keene: I’ve done more than my share of reconnaissance while walking with dog and camera. But unlike locals who have always lived here or newcomers who have invested by buying homes, bearing children, and starting businesses, I’ve no lasting commitments to this particular community. I don’t own property, I’ve no children to yank from school, and my circle of friends exceeds the limits of this town. In relationships mediated through phone and Internet connections, I could live my life almost anywhere. Even my job as an adjunct writing instructor is tenuous and temporary, a mutual agreement between college and contractor to stick around, for now.

Keene was a bustling town when I moved here two years ago, and she continues to burgeon, experiencing the usual growing pains: increased traffic, a flurry of corporate development, an alarming upsurge in crime. Locals rightly question the intentions of newcomers reaching for their piece of the New Hampshire pie. What will happen to downtown businesses now that an outlying strip mall is nearly completed? What use do locals have for a handful of proposed hotels? Keene thrives on an autumn influx of tourist dollars, but locals need to live here year-round. As I too watch Keene’s maturation with concern, I realize I’m neither native nor newcomer. If Keene changes irrevocably, there’s nothing but loyalty stopping me from pulling up stakes and stationing myself elsewhere, and I’m not sure how strong the ties of loyalty really are.

In December I walked to the Christmas tree lighting in Central Square. Families with bundled children were awaiting Santa, and the downtown gazebo was adorned with a caroling choir. There were bright-lit shop windows and lines of luminaries reflected in small, wide eyes. As usual, I walked alone, camera in hand. Christmas is for children and families; in December more than ever, an unaccompanied woman feels out of place, her solitary status running against the weft of society’s fabric. But if a lone woman is out of place anywhere, why not walk streets where children stroll with attentive parents in a town where Santa arrives, alluringly, on a glistening red fire-truck? Returning to my warm apartment, I settled on my mat and cushion, following the breath that feels like home. A Buddhist with a place to lay her mat, I tell myself, is never without refuge.

Keene is a question I’ve not yet solved: after two years of watching and walking, I still don’t know her true face. If someday I finally feel entirely at home in Keene, her mysteries solved and my place here found, I wonder if that will be adequate motive for me to stay or the final push I need to go. As someone obsessed by place, I know that “Here” is relative: I could find that, along with my feet, “Anywhere.” For the time being, I love my quaint little Keene, but we’re not married, and she has many suitors. Although I occasionally feel out of place in a landscape so far from my hometown, right now Keene is my chosen vantage, my stance set as I watch her streets as closely as any bronze sentinel.

Written by Lorianne DiSabato, of Hoarded Ordinaries.

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Where I Am Married

January 5, 2006 6 comments

When we are young, we live where our parents live. For some of us, the place of our birth is a perfect fit, and we never leave it. For others like me, something is missing there, and we look for home in places we have never been but long to find.

After college, my wife and I stayed in my birth state of Alabama just long enough to save a little money, have a baby, and decide where it was that we belonged in this world. Native soil for both of us was in the deep South, but we felt certain even then that our true roots were north of Alabama, and that they would take their source from mountains we had not yet seen. When we found southwest Virginia in the mid-seventies, we were confident that we had come home, or at least that we had found the larger neighborhood of mountains and valleys where, some day, we would put down roots and stay. We’ve lived in or longed to return to Virginia ever since. And now, finally, we’re here in Floyd County for good. But why here?

Something has drawn us here all these years, brought us back, caused these hills to be a nutrient we could not live comfortably without. Maybe the longing we felt could be called a persistent, inborn “sense of place”. Others have used the term, defined it for themselves, found it—in the far north, the Midwest, the desert or shore. But what is it? Is it an essence in the air like the salmon sense as they migrate relentlessly back to the creeks where they were born? Is it a magnetic compatibility with geography, an imperceptible, persistent resonance in our bones that tells us we are home—or not? For me, this siren call to place has come from the southern Appalachians. All of the places I’ve chosen to live my adult life have been in or within sight of the mountains. It is a kind of marriage, perhaps.

A man can be fond of women, but he will settle down in a relationship and build a love affair full of meaning with one woman. And so it is, ultimately—if we are fortunate—with finding our place. I am drawn to the Southern Highlands. I have a particularly strong affinity for the Blue Ridges of these ancient Appalachians. But I sleep every night with this singular configuration of creek and forest and high ridge that I now call home. For the first time in my life, I feel a monogamous fidelity to one fixed and particular place that is as deep and permanent a commitment as the vows I have taken to this one woman, my wife.

In the past two years of living intensely at home, I have had the blessing of time alone with this land, and I feel that we have consummated our bonds: on slow winter walks along Nameless Creek; in quiet summer mornings standing on the front porch with my coffee; during autumn afternoons alone on the ridge sitting with my back against the smooth trunk of a tulip poplar watching pasture grasses down below swirl in the wind like coursing, surging wildebeests on the Serengeti.

It has not always been an easy companionship with this place. I confess that I have resented being here at times—the sameness, the separation, the hardships of living faithfully committed to this bucolic retreat week after week. But the relationship still grows. The more I come to know the shape and moods of this valley through the seasons, the more I know myself as I walk its paths and photograph its beauties and imbibe its wonders every day. And the more I know that we can live together— ‘til death do us part.

Written by Fred First, of Fragments from Floyd.

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Place of Sense

January 3, 2006 15 comments

When you live in a place
long enough you learn the smells.
The smoke from its factories.
The ammonia from the fertilizer plant.
The slaughter house blood and bone.
Garlic frying in the woks.

You get used to the sounds.
The honking of horns
and squealing of tires.
The sirens of cops
and the silence of robbers.
The helicopters flying overhead.
The family crying
at the young girl’s funeral.
The wild laughter
from the neighbor’s apartment.
The Corpus Christi
procession in the street.
Hip hop music from the cars.

You recognize others on the street
in this place where you live, where
you’ve learned the smells and the sounds.
You walk by people sometimes.
Sometimes they walk by you.
Some of them are bright-eyed,
alert to the world.
Some of them carry their fists
clenched, their jaws set.
You notice that some of them
keep their eyes downcast, averted.
Some never talk.
But the eyes are always
saying something.
Something about love and hate,
about life and death,
here where three rivers meet,
The Floyd, the Big Sioux and the Missouri.
Some of the eyes know you.
They remember you
and you remember them.

The dead girl had been
murdered by her ex-boyfriend
She was an only child.
I know the family.
The funeral was on
a Friday during Lent.
A cold rainy day.
The interment was
on a windy hill.
The notes of the mariachi band
were lost in the wind.
The violins got wet.
The ladies at the parish hall
forgot it was Friday and served
ham salad sandwiches.
I guess that funeral was
everyfuneral for everygirl
everywhere.

Sometimes people just walk by.
You nod your head.
And they nod theirs.
They are like the others.
They are not like the others.
It is always hard to tell.

Let me make this clear.
It has something to do with
the sense of place.
The place of sense.
And the spirit in you.
And the spirits beyond you.
You become part of a place
and the place becomes part of you.
And that is what I needed to say.

Written by Fred Garber, of Factory Town.

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An Indian Scale

January 2, 2006 13 comments

I had been playing the cello for twenty-seven years and yet, since I started at the age of four, I had always felt that it was not I who was playing, but rather someone else’s desire inhabiting my body and trying to express itself. I, meanwhile, was hiding behind the fat ribs of the instrument trying to sabotage that person’s every effort.

It was 1995 and one day, in the middle of a performance, my shoulder froze and I was unable to move my right arm. The doctors told me that day that I would never play again.

Rather than spend my time in snivelling queues collecting dole money, I decided to go in search of some answers. I skipped the traditional French Christmas of oysters and lobster in La Rochelle and, much to the shock of my boyfriend’s parents, I went to India.

I had been to India several times before but never on my own. So as not to flail in the country’s chaos on arrival, I had planned everything: I was to arrive in Trivandrum and make my way – after a night in a hotel – to a cultural centre where I would spend a month learning South Indian vegetarian cookery and Karnatic singing.

We touched down at the airport and, as it always does on arrival in an Indian city, the heat of shit rose almost aromatic in the air to meet us. Ever the intrepid and budget conscious traveller, I bumped up and down on the exploding bus in to the centre of town and went in search of cheap eats and a place to stay.

As I threaded my way between street sellers, trying to fight off the insistent cling-film of the Indian sales-pitch, it was as if the hammock of language – which had always cradled me – now dropped me and I was scrabbling, my limbs wriggling in the air, in the mud.

Everything was upside down.

Six months before leaving for India I had bought my first home – a flat in Brighton, on the South coast of England. In my luminous south-facing kitchen with its sea-view, I had painted my walls yellow and blue, adding hand crafted Mexican tiles in the same hues. I had bought a set of green ‘Le Creuset’ kitchenware in which I planned, on my return, to test out my new red chilli and coriander-spiked recipes. My floors were covered with sisal, sourced from the Kerelan backwaters….

…and here I was in Kerela itself. Having arrived in the side-car of a rickety tricycle, I found myself walking along a noisy mud track, facing something dark and oily cooked in a thick-coated bubbling receptacle by a nearly naked man in what looked more like a brothel than a café. Was this dinner? Where were the plates, the knives and forks? Where were the starched aprons of the chefs, or the reds and greens of the fresh vegetables they were going to teach me how to cook? Above all, where was the silence, which I was going to fill with the sounds of their ragas?

On previous trips I had always travelled with my best friend. Having each other as a point of reference had been, I now discovered, the key to staying sane whilst in culture shock. A mere: “Oooh, look at the taxis! Aren’t they weird?!” or “I guess that must be a potato curry of some sort” had been enough to translate the concept of ‘car’ or ‘food’ from one culture into another. Now however, alone and with no reference point for the very first time on my adventures, I panicked.

Survival instinct took over, and I did something I had never done: I rushed to the nearest three star ‘Western’ hotel. There, defeated and ashamed, I ran up to my suite, ordered dal and rice from room service and listened to the manic beep of Indian city nightlife.

In the muted din that passed through into my double glazed shell I suddenly knew that the world as I understood it – a world in which I ate food, drove a car, cleaned my flat, made music, talked to people and listened to the sea – had ceased to exist. Thus, as the centre of that world, I had surely also ceased to exist.

Certain that I would never wake up again, I went to sleep saying good-bye to loved ones and giving thanks for the rich symphony that had been my life. It was surprisingly easy to let go.

Of course I did wake up. I took the taxi to the Kala Vedi Cultural Centre and immersed myself in my activities: I spent the mornings with Kurup – the ‘Chef’. We chopped small shrivelled things he called vegetables whilst protecting my cello fingers with something which looked like a coloured condom, and cooked them in a black vessel he called a pan. We ate with our fingers off banana leaves. I watched his eyes empty when he ground spices and his belly jiggle above his greying lungi when he giggled. When I was leaving I looked around what had, on day one, seemed like a filthy black shack, and saw everything gleam as bright as Kurup’s smile.

In the afternoons I roamed my way around the Indian scale, embellishing a ‘ma’, stretching a ‘ga’ and finding my way back home to ‘sa’. It was ten days before my teacher, used to coaching bored Westerners from the Ashram, realised that I got it; I got the diametric tension beween ‘sa’ (the tonic, or do) and ‘pa’ (the dominant or so), the agony of ‘ni’(the leading note or te)’s proximity to home. I got also that once you left ‘sa’ and journeyed to ‘pa’, ‘sa’ was changed forever.

In the absence not only of a common language but also a common concept of learning, I absorbed my lessons with my senses, by imitation. My analytic mind started to quieten.

In the evenings, before sitting down cross-legged to a ‘masala dosa’ or a dollop of ‘porial’ beans gathered up in a chapati, I had two hours’ Ayurvedic massage at the Ashram. There, swimming on an inverted body-shaped tree trunk in pints of thick green hot medicinal oil, I lost myself in the maternal folds of Divya’s tummy whilst she pummelled me, and my shoulder slowly started to un-chill.

In January I returned home to my anaesthetic yellow and blue kitchen and wondered what knives and forks -were for. I couldn’t believe my masseur’s three drops of rose and lavender oil and his highly priced itsy-bitsy touch. My boyfriend broke up with me and, after many tears, life moved on.

Ten years later, having married a painter and made my home and pursued my career as a cellist in France (and having never cooked a Masala Dosa, nor sung a Karnatic scale since), I know that the real magic happened, as it always does, in the space between: In the emptiness of my Trivandrum three star Western hotel, between what felt like life and death, I fell into the crack of the present. No judgements, no attachments, no expectations, no desires, no hopes, no points of reference, no words. Just a tempered ‘dal-bat’ and sleep. It was, I’m sure, in that moment that I first crept around the body of my instrument to see what was out there, that I first came home to my ‘do’.

Written by Ruth of meanwhile, here in France

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Union Station

December 28, 2005 8 comments

Union Station
Union Station, Toronto

This grand and unmovable building moves people. From here they enter, board, and alight elsewhere, in places like Sault Ste. Marie, Moose Factory, and Swastika, Ontario. Everyday people find their way home.

When I am homesick for the northern woods I come here, of all places. Its open vaulted ceilings relieve me of the claustrophobia that the city can impose. It allows for deep breaths and the casting of shadows, like a forest late in the day. People move about as birds, with purpose and chatter.

It is here, so far from home, that I am most able to imagine it.

Photo and text by Trix Whipple

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Finding Home

December 27, 2005 9 comments

We have lived in Fairwater, Wisconsin, since 1976. Our daughters grew up here and have gone off from here to make homes of their own. Mary and I remain, and I cannot imagine living any other place than this big cinnamon-colored house. When I die, you might as well bulldoze it in on me; this house is where I want to be.

I’m an Iowa farm boy; that is to say when I was born they dropped my butt on good black dirt and I have stayed close to it since. I need to see farmers work their fields, need to live among common folks and their common ways. I met and married my wife while I was in college in Milwaukee. I’m not a city fellow. Milwaukeeans are fine people; I’m just not one of them. I needed room to run and jump, holler and hoot. And I wanted to raise our daughters in a community more like the one I had known as a child, where you knew your neighbors, where your neighbors knew your business, sure, yet they also watched out for you, where you could leave a car in the driveway with the keys in it. Where community is a face-to-face business.

It was the Bicentennial summer when we started looking for a house. Mary’s parents had a summer place in the sand country of rural Marquette County, Wisconsin, to the west of here. I recognized it would be difficult to make a living in that area, so we looked closer to where one could hope to find work. Mary was a nurse and her job prospects were better than a poet would have. She found a job quickly, at the hospital in Ripon; we knew where to look for a house.

We looked in Ripon, but the houses we toured were too rich for our hand-me-down budget. We looked in nearby Berlin, but ultimately decided we didn’t want to live next to the junkyard in a town which had leather tanning as its major industry. We looked in nearby Brandon, at two houses, both of them remodeled without regard to architectural integrity, in a community where doing laundry on Sunday might be frowned on.

It must have been the hottest day of summer when Mary and I stood in front of the Action Agency Real Estate office in Ripon, looking in the window at a photo of a big old grey battleship of a house offered for sale in Fairwater. My breath caught: that looked like it could be our house. It was set down there as if it meant to stay where it was.

“Where’s Fairwater?” we asked each other.

We went into the office. “Where’s Fairwater?” we asked the realtor. “Can we take a look at this house?” It was in our price range.

“Fairwater is ten miles south of Ripon,” we were told. “Yes, you can see the house.”

When we arrived ahead of the realtor, we rang the bell at the front door. We didn’t know any better. In Fairwater, it appeared, as on the farm where I grew up, one used the side door or back door or garage door; only strangers would come to the front door.

Standing in the front door of the house, we could see the great expanse of wood floor stretching across living room and dining room to the far wall where stood a built-in hutch with glass doors and oak woodwork. The dining room, the living room, and the other room at the front of the house had oak woodwork, too, and high ceilings. The place was filled with a light which contained us. The wood floors gleamed; they radiated endurance. Oh, we looked at the rest of the house, but after seeing those floors and the hutch I think we’d already made our decision.

Of course we knew we’d have to deal with that grey paint flaking away from the house’s clapboard exterior. That could be taken care of the next summer. First we had to make an offer, get a loan, and sign the contract. We had to close on the house, take possession, move in. And we did.

It was the Hankerson house when we bought it; it was the Laper house when the Hankersons bought it. Built in 1903, signed and dated in the attic by the man who created it, the house has had only the three sets of owners – the Lapers, the Hankersons, and now the Montags. Owning a home here seems to be a long-term proposition.

Our younger daughter was not quite two years old back then. We had lived in the house about a week when Jessica stood full height, took hold of the knob of the kitchen door and rattled it; she said, “Go home now,” which was her way of telling us she was ready to go back to Milwaukee. That’s where her home was still, the place we’d lived previously. We had to explain: “We are home now.”

The Hankersons built a ranch house just down the hill from us. The next summer we did paint this old house which had been theirs. All my family came from Iowa to help, and still it took us more than a week.

Truth be told, Mary and I bought the paint we could afford for the job – red barn paint – and the house brightened considerably with the first brush stroke. In the midst of the painting, in the long light at the end of a long day, just as I’d come down from my work atop a tall ladder, Mrs. Hankerson came up the hill behind us. She said to me, “You know, it takes a lot of self-confidence to paint a house that color.”

It wasn’t self-confidence: I was home.

Nearly thirty years later, I am still home. After a quarter century, people finally call this the Montag house. It would take quite a winch to move me.

Written by Tom Montag, of The Middlewesterner.

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Home Body

December 26, 2005 6 comments

The cat curls on the guest bed
and I lie down to watch
as she burrows into the pillows.
She butts them, then my hand,
with the same closed-eyed intensity.

The rain comes in sheets
along the solarium windows;
daisies and Indian paintbrush
sag with water. So damp
the dishes are slow to dry.

Tonight when I say I didn’t
do much today I’ll wish again
that I could show you the drops
drying on the rhododendrons,
the sway of the cat’s tail.

Written by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi.

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