America, the beautiful

It’s very confusing to be an American, at least for me. My awakening to who we are in the world came very late; it wasn’t that I was a rah-rah American, “We are the world’s best neighbor” like some people, it was more that I was completely apathetic. I just didn’t pay attention to politics, didn’t think it mattered, had zero interest in it. In graduate school I dated a Pakistani poet who would tell me with very red eyes about the cruelty and terribleness of the World Bank, the IMF, and who railed against the existence of political borders. Through him I learned what people actually go through when they come here, when they are immigrants, and that was an eye-opener because I simply had no idea. My understanding was a blank canvas; I didn’t think it was easy or hard, I simply had no ideas at all.

And then 9/11 happened and it all hit me, at once, when I was 42. The chickens were coming home to roost, that’s all. We were reaping what we had sowed. Then I met Marc and we started traveling to SEAsia, and I had to come face to face with my country in the world in a way I never had before. Vietnam was one thing, but going to Laos, the location of our Secret War that everyone knew about but the American people, and seeing all the bombs everywhere, and people missing limbs, and we refuse to do anything to help clean up the UXO because we won’t even acknowledge we did it? Well. Gutting.

Iroquois longhouse

But America is beautiful. And I was a little girl who LOVED school. I was dazzled by the stories, and probably listened with wide, glistening eyes. I probably leaned forward, sat on the edge of my seat. I gobbled up books and encyclopedia entries. Henry Hudson sailing up the river in a tall ship, and all the early explorers. Pioneers. Patriots. One if by land, two if by sea. The Boston Tea Party. Wild turkeys and porcupines, and buffalo stampeding across the plains, heat steaming off them in the winter. The various tribes and nations of Native Americans, and how they lived — Cherokee, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache. As a Texan I was most intimately familiar with the tribes who lived on the Plains, and so was most fascinated by the ones who lived in the other parts of the country. The Pacific Northwest tribes and nations. The Mohawk. The Seneca. The Iroquois, who lived in longhouses…which I know and remember so well because I made a construction paper model of one for a class project, probably in second or third grade.

And of course we were taught the nice clean version of history, a museum diorama version (oh! Remember making dioramas in shoe boxes?), no complications of our slaughter of native people, etc etc etc. I’ve come to understand that story more fully, and to be pained by it, to see the ongoing consequences, to wish I could do something about it, but you know, those elementary school stories are so vivid in me, still, and perhaps it’s more that child feeling of being dazzled that’s in me, but the dazzle remains. The first time I crossed the Hudson River, driving from Rochester, NY to see Marnie at Smith College in Massachusetts, I cried. I imagined Henry Hudson sailing up the river, in the wildness, Native Americans all around and nothing beyond their civilizations yet. Wild country, wild river, wild world. Sparkling water and sparkling clear blue skies, or hard winters. Tall ships, daring expeditions.

And the country itself truly is magnificent, from east to west. Low country to truly majestic mountains. Lush forests, swamplands, wide and flat prairies. Endless beautiful rivers, from slow meandering ones shaped into oxbows, to raging whitewater rivers. (The rivers always make me cry. Crossing the Brazos River when I went to Graham last month, I cried. Something about rivers, I don’t know.) Canyons, valleys, hollers. Wildlands, badlands. New York City, with its messy, glorious story.

The song America the Beautiful has more lyrics than most of us know; we are all probably familiar with the first:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

It goes on to talk about pilgrims’ feet, and liberating strife, and patriots’ dreams, and the politics of it get too complicated to sing with a straight face – but the beauty remains undeniable. Spacious skies. Amber waves of grain. Purple mountain majesties. Fruited plains. I don’t know why I get so choked up, why that makes me cry, except maybe it’s touching my little-girl wonder. My teacher’s felt board, with the felt shapes of mountains and clouds and grain; mimeographed pages to color, make those mountains purple, kids; dazzling stories of Apaches on horseback, and Seneca; and robins, which I thought were purely fictional birds that existed in children’s books only (ditto bluebirds, which surely existed only in cartoons).

And so I prepare to live in a place that holds so much of that history and beauty and wildness, and such a huge place in my imagination. I think it probably seems silly, but I’m so excited about seeing porcupines waddling around. Wild turkeys scuttling past. Bears lumbering by. Red and gray foxes dashing here and there. Bobcats. Crows and giant owls and eagles and robins. Herons and egrets and hawks. My creeks constantly shushing at me, and the quiet of the snowfall. Those ancient old soft mountains all around me — not the sharp, stony youth of the Rockies, but the forested, softened old age of the Catskills. Stories of the native people who used to live there — after all, I will be living in Big Indian, named for a specific Native American, a Munsee man named Winneesook.

one part of the trail on Slide Mountain

I prepare to live at the foot of the tallest mountain in the Catskills, Slide Mountain, with a 6.3-mile loop trail so near my house I’ll be able to walk (navigable January through October), and I’ll take my big camera and my lenses and search for the creatures that have lived in my imagination since elementary school.

America is beautiful. We are too easily dazzled by our songs and stories, and too many of us take our myths at face value, but the country itself is extraordinary, exceptional even, and there are ordinary American people who fulfill the promise. (Too bad none are politicians, that would be great.) (And too bad our politicians represent the very worst of us, the most craven, immature, bigly lie tellers possible, out to destroy us and everyone else.) When we travel around the world, it’s easy to spot Americans, and not just because of fanny packs and big white sneakers and inappropriate dress — it’s because there is a kind of openness in the face, a kind of almost goofy goodwill, too often borne of ignorance about what we have done in the world, but also borne of optimism that characterizes us too.

I think I am a patriot. I am a patriot because I abhor the actions of this country, and I fight with everything I have against the government and what we do in the world. And I do that because I love America. I love the beauty of the land, and what we could be, what we could do, who we could become. Even if my love for it/us was seeded in first and second grade, in colorful stories of tall ships and longhouses, of incompletely told stories of fellowship between native people and pilgrims, of paper pilgrim hats worn at Thanksgiving. And that love is battered by bomb casing decorations in Laos, and smiling Vietnamese people, and of ignoring the suffering of others unless there’s something big in it for us, like oil. And that love is nourished by porcupines and great horned owls and wild rivers and very old mountains.

I can’t wait.

always hoping it’s the last one

The time has come to tell some news. I am moving away from Austin on June 22.

I’ve lived here since late November, 2012 primarily because I just needed to be near my daughter and her family. They had just lost Gracie, and I had just lost everything, and I was afraid for my daughter and wanted to help her however I could — and for myself, I needed to be around family. But of course at first she had to help me. I told myself a happy little lie, then: I think it’s good for her, in the immediacy of her grief, to have to shop with me to set up a whole new life. I kind of believed it, until I would look at her shattered face and I knew what it was costing her, the life and energy she simply did not have but was mustering, for me. I made myself a solemn promise, then, that I would never again willingly put myself in a position to have to start over from scorched earth. Never again. I would not just walk away from the things of a life, sell them, throw them away, give them away, leave myself with a suitcase of clothes and nothing else, like Timid Frieda (there she goes / with her valises / held so tightly in her hand).

A few months later, Marc and I started trying to find a way to keep a version of our marriage going. We gradually found our way to the life I’ve been living ever since, the one where I live in two places, here in Austin for 18 days, there in NYC with him for 12. Big travels together three times a year. In most ways it was the best of all worlds: I still had my lovely little home (with time and space just for ME), my beloved daughter and her growing family just right there, my wonderful poetry group and various book clubs, and a host of dear friends, most especially including Nancy, who lives right next door and who has been one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. I got to be here through Katie’s pregnancy with Oliver, and then the start of his life; through her pregnancy with Lucy, and now her new life. I got to help them, hang out with them, be easy. I got to be with her and them as they found their way back to life, and as I did, too.

But it’s hard, it’s been hard. Constantly uprooting my life has taken a toll. An every-two-week reboot, for 4.5 solid years, exhausting. Neither Marc nor I seemed to want me to return to our very small apartment in New York, and I’d made that promise to myself.

My work has been so negligible and my income so unsteady, I was exploring all the possibilities since I didn’t feel like I could keep affording the place I’d rented all these years. Could I move in with Marnie and Tom? We had very sincere conversations about it, and I’ll never forget Tom’s quick, moist-eyed invitation, and the delight in Marnie’s eyes at the thought of a tiny house for me in their front yard. The beauty of getting to be Ilan’s everyday Pete, of being real help to my daughter, of making my own small contribution to her doing her work. Or could I just find a tiny little studio apartment here in Austin somewhere? Whatever happened, my life had to change, I had to move again. It would be move number 82. (I hope I don’t hit 100 before I die.)

Finally Marc proposed the most perfect idea, and it was like a clap of thunder in its clarity and obvious solution: we would buy a cabin in the Catskills and I would live there. He can come up on weekends — lots of people in the city do that — and I can go into NYC whenever I want, for however long, but my place of residence will be that house.

like paradise — I remember the chill in the summer air from the cold stream

When I was a little girl, and then a young woman reading the Foxfire books, I’d read about making baskets, for instance, using materials collected from nature. Only they were never materials that grew in Texas: they were cattails, and reeds, and grasses…..of a kind that grow in Appalachia. And the Catskills. So the place has lived in my imagination most of my life. When I moved to NYC in 2005, Marc and I made very regular pilgrimages upstate to a wonderful little town named Phoenicia, to see the autumn foliage, to see spring starting to emerge. The first time I went to Woodstock I saw that little cabin hanging out on a rock over a stream that I mentioned a short while ago, and oh how I wanted that little cabin. I wanted it into my bone marrow. In the years since, that has been my imaginary home. I’ve never wanted a mansion, never understood that desire: my imaginary home was a cabin, a bungalow, a small place of my very own.

And so I move into the option that feels just about as perfect as can be, my own home in the Catskills, just down the highway from Phoenicia. I can fly to see my Austin family and my Chicago family as regularly as I like and still not be as disrupted as I’ve been. I can make regular pilgrimages to them, stay with them a week at a time, each, and soak up those people I love so dearly…..without disrupting their lives so profoundly. Without having to lean on them when they are at this burgeoning and financially tight stage of their lives. I can drive into NYC, or take a bus or the train, at a moment’s notice. Finally, I won’t always be in the wrong place at the wrong time! I won’t miss the PEN Festival, the New Yorker Festival, performances I want to see. I can see Marc every single week — but as he said, we will each still have our own time and space. He needs that as much as I’ve learned that I do. And we will have an investment, instead of simply setting fire to money, as we’ve done on my rent ($75K while I’ve been here!).

I walk this road every single autumn. Every one, for the last 12 years. It looks like the street my new house is on.

Nearby Woodstock has a very vibrant arts community, and a glance at the Meetup groups suggests that I’ll find people pretty easily. Poets, writers, artists, performers, my tribe lives there too. Cold, snowy winters. Red-orange autumns. Chilly, wet springs. Green firefly-lit summers.

My life, how many different lives I’ve had. I never dreamed I would actually get to live in the Catskills, but here it comes. I never dreamed I could live there and in New York City — not individually, and certainly not both. My life has taught me so many things, including the fact that nothing at all is permanent (except, I think, my love for my kids). Who knows where else my life will take me before it’s all said and done, but while I am having the life I’m about to have, I look forward to eating it up. To watching closely as it changes day by day. To taking pictures, to hiking in the woods, to cozying up on snowy days or cross-country skiing off my deck and onto the trails crisscrossing the forest around our house. To Marc’s garden, that idea makes me giggle with happiness. To learning the names of birds, trees, plants, wildlife. To seeing black bears (lots of black bears apparently), bobcats, weasels, porcupines, coyotes, gray wolves, eastern coyotes, gray and red foxes, river otters, whitetail deer, ravens, crows, wild turkeys, great horned owls, screech owls, bald eagles, lots of songbirds. To the contrast between a real city and the most beautiful country, and to continuing to be dazzled in my beloved NYC. My daily life will be a great many things, including some icky aspects I don’t know about yet but I’m sure I’ll discover, and I look forward to all of them. I look forward to sharing it all here.

one of the two creeks in our back yard
The other of our two creeks
This shot from one corner of the deck shows the woods around the house, and the shape of the surrounding mountains.
The downstairs is a big, bright, open space — deck off the house to the right, the length of the house, a bright living room with lots of windows, a half bath, and a fabulous kitchen — wood burning stove in between. Upstairs, two bedrooms and one full bath. Full unfinished basement. Full attic too, for that matter.
Standing at the closest creek, that’s the back of the house
back corner
the front of the house (on a very overcast day!) — I want to plant flowers around the house, and maybe forsythia
Marc, standing on ground between the two creeks out back

Though I will be 100% thrilled to leave the most hateful state of Texas, I’ll be sorry to leave my friends in Austin, and hope to see people when I come back to visit Katie and family. I’ll be sorry to leave a great many aspects of Austin, and I’m so glad I moved here in 2012. In addition to all the reasons I’ve loved being here that relate to Katie, I learned so much here. I really learned how to make a life for myself, just for me. I learned that I love living alone. I learned how to do that, even. You have a standing invitation to come visit. There are three ski mountains VERY nearby (Hunter, Belleayre, and Windham), it’s gorgeous in the fall, and I have a spare bedroom.

Move #82. It’s gonna be OK.

Our home is in Big Indian, at the margin between Big Indian Wilderness and Catskills State Park (Big Indian is part of the park, just a distinct spot of its own….and how thrilling, “wilderness”!).
There it is in relation to the city — Catskills State Park is the large green area at the top of the picture, a 2.5-hour drive to NYC.

And very nearby our house is the trailhead for one of the best hikes in the Catskills, to Giant Ledge — five ledges, actually:

the view from Giant Ledge Trail

Wow. Bring it on, black bears and all.

(*This got real long, but I append a funny story about black bears, in case you’ve stuck it out to the bitter end. So there are a LOT of black bears in the Catskills. A lot. They’re not really a threat except during baby season, and then only if you get to close to babies and a mama gets scared. I was told I’d need to bring my bird feeders in every night, because the bears love them. [really???] And the realtor said that they’ll come right up on the deck; her husband opened the door one night and came face-to-face with a big black bear, and they both freaked out and ran. He said he’ll always remember two things: 1) how AWFUL it smelled, and 2) that its breathing was so loud and sounded like Darth Vader. He could still hear it breathing from a long way away. One woman frequently finds streaks of bear snot on her kitchen window, since she hangs a bird feeder there during the day. (?) So I guess if I’m ever sitting in my living room and see a pair of eyes on the deck and hear Darth Vader, I don’t need to be [too] afraid. 🙂 )

birthday fortnight

My wonderful and beautiful friend Peggy is like me in that she’s crazy about her birthday. We have a great many things in common, and when I found out that she actually celebrates a birthday fortnight (in part because there aren’t enough opportunities to use the word fortnight) I knew I would love her forever. And so I am a birthday-fortnight-celebrator too. Later today we’ll be hopping in our car for a trip upstate (lower upstate) to the Catskills, to a place we’ve gone every single year at least once, often twice.

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The little cabin we’ll stay in is the exact one we always stay in, and we’ll eat at the exact same restaurant we always enjoy, and we’ll take the exact same walks we always take, and I will relish in the tradition of it all. Growing up with no traditions, no celebrations, has left me hungry for any little tradition I can get my hands on. Since my birthday is in early November, we always go here to enjoy the foliage, unless we’re on a vacation somewhere else; in fact, last year we had reservations to go the weekend after my birthday, but before that could arrive we decided to end our marriage.

Of the many, many, many things that broke my heart so badly when I thought my marriage was over, one of the smaller ones was the loss of these traditions. I figured I would just try to make some new ones, create a different kind of thing for myself, but the thing about a tradition is that it’s always there and it’s always the same. Tradition interruptus kind of loses its essential core. When we cancelled our trip last year, I mourned that I’d never again get to spend part of my birthday fortnight in our little cabin in the Catskills, and I regretted that the last time I’d gone there I simply had no clue it would be the last time.

But it wasn’t. Life is eternally strange, and only death permanently closes a door, I guess. Even when it seems like a door is truly and finally closed — no, for real, seriously — no, it really is, see it’s all bricked over — it might not be. Strange.

I’ll be taking my big photo gear, my big camera instead of just my phone, and will thoroughly enjoy photographing it all once again. Peak color has come and gone but there will surely be some resistant leaves still clinging to the branches. Temperatures are going to be very cold — highs in the low 40s and overnight dipping way way down to and below freezing, from what we can see. So much fun.

Happy Friday to y’all, I hope you are anticipating a wonderful weekend too! xo