Posts Tagged ‘Beth Adams’

Zooming into Home

January 12, 2006 12 comments

“Let’s go flying,” my husband says, and so we sit down side-by-side at the computer, type a destination, and stare in fascination at the lighted screen, where the earth zooms closer and closer until we are flying over Beijing, Bermuda, Bombay. We zoom into a housing development, fly over city parks, scan acres of rain forest and desert, explore villages along the Amazon, the Rhone, the St. Lawrence. Human beings have never been able to do this before: silently, benignly, we pass over the world’s houses like Yahweh over Egypt – but leave no trace.

The computer lets us approach in a startling demonstration of general-to-specific. The world becomes a continent becomes a region; a particular city surrounded by mountains; a set of streets; a house on a certain corner, with a brick walk and a tree in the backyard: someone’s home, someone’s place in the world.

The technology is new, but the feeling was known to me already. Whenever we’ve returned to Vermont after traveling, I’ve noticed the closing sense of familiarity and tried to pinpoint it: where does “home” start to feel like home? When does our own local “area” begin? What – besides the arbitrary municipal boundaries – marks out the village? Then we’re suddenly there, moving down the familiar streets past the mini-mart and the falling-down diner, and Lester’s car parked in his driveway – and there’s the neighbor’s cat in the window, and then our house, our flowering crab apple, our back door, my hand on the knob: home.

When it’s a place you love, that’s a good feeling. I’ve also shaken my head at some of the places I’ve lived, astounded that of all the spots on earth, this is where my zoom ends up; this is where the map tack goes. And yet, for most people on earth, I think there is in fact a virtual map tack that they’d identify as “home,” even if they are presently displaced.

It’s natural to zoom in on our own home, but not so natural to stand in someone else’s and look out. When I was in college, I drove across the country with a friend. We were in her little yellow sports car, and one noon we pulled into a family restaurant in Nebraska and ordered our lunch, which was served by a blond farm girl about our age. When she brought the check, she stood by our table, hesitating, and then asked, “Where are you from?”

“Ithaca, New York,” we told her, and then she asked where we were going. “San Diego, California,” we said. She was silent; in her eyes I saw the longing and felt hopelessly uncomfortable. We went out to our car and drove off; she stood in the plate-glass window, watching, holding our plates.

That was the first reversal I’d experienced in one of those look-alike franchises that hug highway exits in every major town. The concept is to make travelers feel “at home” with identical décor and identical food, before continuing on, away from there. But what if “there” is “home”? Who are those waitresses, those dishwashers, the people mopping the bathroom floor? The traveler’s trajectory is so privileged: a line between two points, this stop an insignificant, momentary deviation. But for the locals, this place is a zoom with a final thud, as the map tack goes in to stay. A mile away from the exit, life is lived not on a vector between distant places, but in circles that bring us back again and again to that specific spot we call “home”.

The other night in Montreal, the new place we call home, I was walking back to our apartment down a street lined with typically narrow, attached triplexes. So many residences! More in a few blocks than in my entire Vermont village! And each door distinguished by a number, a color, a lace curtain, a wreath or some Christmas lights, a child’s drawing taped to a window.

At a corner, a young woman carrying a baby turned and headed down the street in front of me. Where was she going, I wondered? The baby bounced and peered at me over her shoulder. The woman slowed slightly, yes, here was her building: now, what floor? She hoisted the child more securely onto her hip, and started up the wrought iron staircase, stopping at the second floor landing, and rummaged in her bag for her keys. She stepped inside, the light went on, the baby turned his head to face it.


Written by Beth Adams of The Cassandra Pages

Categories: Finding Home Tags:

Untitled (West Side Highway, NYC)

October 23, 2005 8 comments
Categories: Change and Continuity Tags:

“…and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”–Joni Mitchell

September 20, 2005 15 comments


Outskirts of early anti-Vietnam war demonstration, New Haven CT March 1968.
Photo by Jonathan Sa’adah.

Sometimes I’m not sure I had an adolescence. The personal details of those years seem forever pressed, like a prom corsage, between heavy events: inseparable now without tearing either the pages or the petals.

I was eleven when Kennedy was assassinated: we heard about it over the loudspeaker wired into our sixth-grade classroom. The teacher put her head down on her desk and cried. One girl was terrified to walk home alone because the killer hadn’t been found; someone said, Bonnie, are you nuts, he’s in Texas, do you think he can get to New York State in two hours? I left school and walked my safety-patrol route and went home; later that week my father and I were watching our small black-and-white television when Oswald was shot.

That year we still had girl-only birthday parties where we wore dresses and white ankle socks and danced the twist. The next fall we moved up from the long brick elementary school into the junior/senior high school building — and childhood was over. At another pajama party we squealed over the Beatles, and later the girls whispered in the dark about French kissing and having periods and making babies.

“I think it will be gross,” one of them said.

“I won’t know, I’ll be asleep when he does it,” said another, envied by all of us for already having a boyfriend.

Bob Dylan wrote The Times They are a Changin’ in 1964. I was twelve that summer, when Los Angeles erupted into the Watts riots. Already the bard-poets – Dylan, Simon, Lennon – were planting the idea in my head that vibrant, powerful poetry could grow out of one’s own roots and alienation both.

They called us flower children, but really we were children of the Cold War, raised on fallout and expected conflagration. The explosion finally came in 1968: the My Lai massacre happened in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, Bobby Kennedy in June while we were taking New York State Regents’ exams. I had long hair and wire-rimmed glasses; spent hours listening to music and reading, playing a half-hearted guitar and trying to sing like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. Part of that summer, I knocked on doors in my hometown to campaign for Eugene McCarthy, witnessing the fissures in the country at close range as people I’d known all my life invited me in to talk, or kicked me out of their houses.

The first day of senior year we stood around the black tables of the physics lab and listened to two kids who had managed to go to Woodstock; it wasn’t all that far from where I grew up — in fact, my cousin, a state livestock inspector, used to test the cows for mastitis on Yasgur’s newly-famous farm. That December, just in time to coincide with the deadlines for our college applications, the Selective Service held the first draft lottery for everyone born between 1944 and 1950. We were two years younger, but we knew what was coming: the thunderheads were piling up, the leaves turning upside down in the wind. Country Joe and the Fish sang the Fixin’ to Die Rag; Jimi Hendrix demanded to know if we were experienced. Everyone was going through the motions of SATs, college essays, relationships, career choices, but none of us were sure we’d live to grow up, or what life would be like if we did.

I spent a lot of that year in the library or the art room talking to my friend Kip. In the absence of any AP classes in our high school, we’d both been pulled out of English and American History and were doing those classes as tutorials with two barely-motivated faculty members. It was a loose structure, to say the least; we had big term paper assignments and lots of books to read, but mostly we talked about politics and history, art and poetry, racism and class warfare. Kip wore his poor background like a breastplate and chided me constantly for having come from the middle class. “What do you know?” he’d taunt. “I had rats in my cradle when I was a baby. What makes you think you have anything to say?” He made oil paintings and wrote long Ferlinghetti-inspired poems on the back with lines like “bombshelter brainrooms in crystal and silver”. I argued back, and painted a twice-life-size nude on a cooperative mural that scandalized the cafeteria staff; together he and I edited the yearbook and, without ever saying so, prized our stormy friendship.

In April Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, in May the country blew up over Kent State… and a month later we graduated.

I was bursting with unexpressed feelings, experiences, longings. I wanted to be a writer, but I was enough of a self-critic to know that the stuff I was writing was crap: my voice inauthentic, my eye too close to the lens. Kip’s words would haunt me for another decade and a half, as I struggled to understand the carnage left by Vietnam and the tumultuous trajectory of a personal life emerging, finally, from those dense pages. It would take a new set of mounting injustices, together with a long inward journey, to finally swell the seed planted back in the sixties – the seed with the words inside.

Written by Beth Adams of
the cassandra pages.

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