Saturday, September 25, 2010

On the Subject of A Place: an essay

August 2010

We have walked so many times, my boy,
Over these fields given up
To thicket, have thought
And spoken of their possibilities,
Theirs and ours, ours and theirs the same,
So many times, that now when I walk here
Alone, the thought of you goes with me;
My mind reaches toward yours
Across the distance and through time.
      -- Wendell Berry, Sabbath Poems

Person as place. Rest, hope, healing personified in floors and beams and tables as interchangeably as arms, necks, laps. A good and kind person, a beautiful and restful place take on the same essence in my perception and experience of them. If ever there was an argument for God's dwelling among men, the Midas-tough of incarnation, it could be in this way we internalize person and place. The ethos of both entities wrapping around us and through us, sensually and otherwise, an ageless presence of truth, goodness and beauty.

This week I sojourn with my four children and husband under the roof-top of a tiny, red-shingled cabin on the curve of a sparkling pond. I've come to this place for years -- almost twenty-five in a row -- traversing the grassy shoreline, rowing the lily-pad and stump-strewn  pond water, meandering the surrounding pebbly pathways. As an adolescent, I bloomed in the sensual soil of this place. During weeks like this one now, when I was the child vacationing here with my parents and siblings. Also, during picnics with extended family, commemorating patriotic holidays, or celebrating the birthdays and graduations and anniversaries of three generations underneath Grandpa's homemade picnic pavilion, eating Grandma's macaroni and potato salads.

Almost twenty-five years, I say, because the cottage as a Place and the cottage as a Person became tainted in the residue of a family split. While brooding on this history during our stay, I stumbled on this poetic lament in Wendell Berry's book of Sabbath poems. I read and re-read his lines, silently and out loud, to my husband and to the swallows skimming the speckled pond, as if to prove to us all their precision.

Schism happened. What had been a haven for kith and kin, all of us sharing the same bloodline loading  down picnic tables with laughter and giant marbled watermelons, later spilling out into the murky water wreathed in shiny, black inner tubes burning from the afternoon sun. Sounds that once arced through the air, cousins playing cards in the bunk house, uncles clanging horseshoes across the mown grass now whittled down to the quiet recollections between my grandparents sitting on the tree swing staring across an empty yard. Schism happened and we splintered, but good.

Still this place of rest, beauty, quiet had wound its way into the soul of the family, a surrogate mother for the heartbroken and exhausted, the poor and the restless. It had pushed its essence into our veins, our DNA, even unto a fourth generation. Like prodigal children we began to trickle back from lesser places to the waiting embrace of this feast on the small water. Schism continues as pebbles skipped into the pond, rippling back and forth through family lines. We are not able to be together, except through the familiar pathways of this little plot of land and little building upon it. We share the news of our growing families in pen-scribbled lines across the twenty-five year old pages in Grandma's guest book. The entries remind us of the events and dates before shalom was shattered.

I had forgotten about the book until this summer. It was the first thing that caught my eye when I walked in the door, laden with bags of vacation food spilling onto the kitchen table and speckled counter tops. Once unburdened, I picked up the little brown book from its place of honor among the familiar bric-a-brac. I sat with the book for awhile, reliving the memories attached to each entry, calling out old recollection to my children. All week, I re-opened its pages, tried to place the entries in the timeline of our family history.  I notice the gold-stamp scrolled atop the book's faux leather cover,  pronouncing a benediction:  May God Bless All Who Enter Here.

Today, my husband and I took the long, woodsy walk up Forshee Road, across the street from the family land. Mid-summer wildflowers, Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed Susan, purpled chicory, dried timothy wind the stony roadway, reminding me of the countless grubby bouquets held in plastic cups on Grandma's kitchen table. Blue sky, white clouds over top the leafy canopy calling us upward to the hilltop view of another lake overlooking fields of goldenrod and blackberry bushes. Always the reward for this climb, a visit to the lone ancient tree that sits atop the hill, a benevolent ruler of this back country kingdom. The tree that propped me up after this same walk during so many angst-ridden adolescent summers; the tree that can be seen from almost any spot walking around the lake below; that serves as a path-marker fingering the country sky.

Reaching the top of the hill, I realize that the entire landscape has changed. If the tree is even there at all, I can no longer make it out. I wonder if it ever stood as I remember. We can not walk further. Someone has claimed the land for their own, posted signs, built fences. If the tree is further up, I can not know. With my toe against the warning sign, I can not glimpse the lake below or, even, the blackberry bushes that had lined the pathway. We turn to leave and tears wash my sweaty face. This place has become loss instead of comfort. The sense of it has been altered; I feel betrayed.

Waves of loss wear down my thoughts. Not being able to re-visit the tree feels like a death of sorts. So much has been lost over these years, designating surviving icons as a source of comfort and pleasure. The flickering light in the bathroom delights all of us because it is familiar. Draining pasta for dinner last night, in the mustard-yellow colander my Grandmother had always used to prepare her salads, made me feel connected to so many good things.  Each sensory connection a tactile reminder: treading with bare feet the smoothed-over wood on the sun porch floor, dipping toes into the pond's soft liquid, sniffing the charry, eye-watering scent of burning logs on the campfire, discerning the smacks and warbles of invisible life among the lily pads.  All these sensations a Eucharist of sorts, connecting me to the memory of this larger, glorious past. Do this in remembrance...

And, so, after years away, we do this again. Eat the bread and drink the wine of this Place, but it is changing. And I am scared to lose all connection. We know that we'll lose the persons before us; this has been true since the beginning of Man. Cancer is crouching at my Grandfather's doorstep, threatening another sort of family schism. We hope, at least, to keep the kinesthetic comfort of a place.

Damn that tree for being lost to us.

If the Church's centuries-old sacramental theology holds any water, the belief that we are united in our collective remembering, our gathering of confession and gratitude across time and space, what might that mean for the gatherings in this Place? Might the worship we each give in our time here, the remembrance of good things past, the gratitude for good things present, somehow unite us across the man-made chasms separating brother from brother? Might we pray for reconciliation as we pass notes, like elements, words of old acquaintance left to each other in our coming and going?  A passing of the peace, a prayer: May God Bless All Who Enter Here.

And might that prayer save us all?

No mortal mind's complete within itself,
But minds must speak and answer,
As ours must, on the subject of this place,
Our history here, summoned
As we are to the correction
Of old wrong in this soil, thinned
And broken, and in our minds.
                                          -- Wendell Berry

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