A Grander Gander

“A location is the reply.” – C.S. Giscombe

But what was the question?

stop, go, nevermind

Showing Not Telling

As I write this, winter is laying down its first cards.  Ace of spades?  You’re going to play that in November?

I show my deuce:  I found both mittens on the first try, I say to winter. Finger-mittens. This year is going to be different. And winter just smirks, the way only a very seasoned thing can.

Whereas welcoming the warm weather feels instinctive, welcoming cold takes practice.  In Prospect Park, Peace Be Upon Thee, of Brooklyn, New York, a huge tree, a thing worth worshiping, has dropped all its leaves; it’s birthday suit time already!  Among its roots,  yellows, oranges and biting reds accrue.  There, shooting straight up towards the barrenness, long-stemmed purple flowers—a deep purple—have broken open over the weekend.  These latecomers know how to take just the right amount of food from the light in order to blossom.  As J says over the phone, “It’s their time, now.”

On the way home from PA along Route 80, peak foliage peaking, frost ebbing off the car wind shield, we stop for gas and I fill up my tea mug in the Smart-Mart.  The gas station clerk, who sincerely does not mind if I take some hot water says to me, M’am, where are you from?  And my mother and I, in unison: Brooklyn!  And the clerk: I thought yous’n Europeans! And me: Why?  Because I talk funny? The clerk: No, because of how you’re dressed! Was it the black champion leggings and orange 60’s dress with the unraveling hem that gave me away?  The mushed-up winter hat and knit scarf and sweater-t and vest and layers that add up to bulk but not protection?  I smile: 100% Brooklyn.

And now we go back in time, before Fall Fell, to a different journey.

Face Place

somethin' pastoral

If the United States were a face, Michigan would be the forehead.  In the bygone days of the 1500s, when phrenology was hot and scientific and sewers were open, a large forehead indicated particular intelligence.

Many eastern traditions locate our third eye as lodged in the center of the forehead.  This eye sees into the transcendent nature of the self.  It knows where all our metaphorical oil wells lie.

Our physical eyes may present a more direct line to the soul but the forehead is equally charged.  It’s where we register emotion, cognition, aging.  It is largely ignored as facial feature—not the main event.   But its space and skin has a lot of information for us, if we look.

Michigan has suffering the same fate, this large but neglected feature of our United  Face.

Road Worthy

J and I are on a road trip in the NorthWest of the State.  To the Leelanau Peninsula, hooking around Traverse City, the Cherry Capital of the World, and up, up and away to the U.P.  Then back to Hubbard Lake and the little white house, where the red pines will be obstinately not pining for us, the hummingbirds whipping their wings at the feeders.  The objective is for me to see Michigan, beyond what I already have.

Because it is the fruit bowl days of August, anyone with three planks and soil has set up a farm stand; peaches, raspberries, blueberries.  Every few miles, sloppy and uneven lettering announces homemade pies and bushels of new produce.  This keeps things sweet.  We don’t stop for the blueberries, which feels like an offense.  J’s mom calls the seasonal bounty “what’s up now.”

bluer than the eye can apprehend

In response to the signs, I’m: Blueberry, blueberry, BLUEBERRY!— my juicy mantra. Blue: the color of  my body when my mother delivered me, hidden in a confused rush of membrane. For me, what the earth makes—its pro-duce—soothes the anxiety that comes with being a living thing.  You’re born dangling from it.  When the cord is cut, the angst shrivels right up and moves into your belly, with the honky-tonking gastro-bacteria.  Frequently and often before sleep, I can feel it creeping around, like the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, trapped in the great room of the body, where the windows are all open but to no avail.

The huge fields roll out on either side of the road, stately and vigorous green, interrupted by neat bales of hay.  Old, cavernous farms deteriorate on the hillsides, their wood peeling back and falling in, a conversation with gravity.  The dairy cows lie on their sides, bellies showing.  Among the herd, new calves are just beginning the great game of biology.  It requires lots of naps.

Stop looking at me like that! The cow shouts.  Or I’m going to milk you!

Roger.

barnicle

Spelling Conditionally

Nearing the 45th parallel, a hair or two closer to the North Pole, the marquees exhibit poor orthography.  Do deliberate mistakes whet the appetite?  Up ahead on the expressway lies —ta-dah!— “Kuntry Kubbard.”  It’s got phonetic food for the famished traveler.  In a 3rd grade classroom, these errors would be corrected with a red pen and a kind smile.

O Gosh, J, could we stopp there for a liddle soop? I’m sooo hungry.

listening is an art

Or maybe I’ll just nosh on this superiority complex I brought with me.  Eventually, to squash all that, Lake Michigan appears, glorious, close to the roadside.  First a mere sliver through the bordering pines, it then planes outward, monopolizing the periphery, a sharp, oceanic blue.  Slits in its surface are filled with regular daylight.

tale of two pretties

Along the drive, neglect is rife.  Some signs are missing letters, the advertisement’s equivalent of lettuce-on-the-front-tooth: “WEL OME!”, calls the motel parking lot. It’s been twenty years, perhaps, since that “Welcome” was posted, time in which the other letters have weathered and faded.  The proprietor still hasn’t gotten around to replacing the “C.”   Or perhaps he knows that the brain reliably compensates for obvious missing pieces.

Which is also what love does.

Trippping

We repeatedly pass banners for ALL U CAN EAT Friday Fish Fry, slung across store lots that are mostly empty of cars. Yum: like a drinking contest of aquarium run-off.  Each town has its prized joints.  I want to know exactly how much fish fry a person could eat before the bubble bursts.  Occasionally, a numbed human stands out front, staring into the inevitable patch of wood behind the restaurant, as if remembering that nature, too, has a voracious appetite.

I think that these establishments—most of which look empty of all but the invitation to feast—assume their patrons to be Grizzly bears, newly awakened from hibernation.  Metabolism roaring back to action, the body so hungry that it forgives even verbal shortcomings.  Stuffing yourself is possible only on Fridays; extra cause to mourn the unsurpassable Wednesday-ness of the moment.

In the small almost-towns, where other signs of commercial activity are absent, hair—like the grass– continues to grow.  This stimulates the economy marginally; poor, little economy.   It has sleep apnea.  “Sheer Difference Haircut” petitions us. J’s hair is shaved off.  Mine is hopelessly long.  Rapunzel’s is everlasting. We don’t slow down for this one-shop wonder, nor the fish fry enclave beside it.

Modular Mentality

ponderable

We pass through Ponderosa, which sounds like something weighty, important, stable: settled.  But here advertisements for Modular Homes abound—take it apart, put it together again.

The billboard appears so frequently that it begins to feel like an acquaintance.   One greets it with friendly recognition:  Oh, it’s you again, Modular Home Hawker!

Billboard: Yep.

Me: That’s all you got, ‘yep’?

Billboard:  Listen, Spanky.  Some of us are working, not vacationing.

Me: Sitting on your ass for three days in a car isn’t work?

Billboard: Hey, I’ve also got a lot of rhetorical questions on my resume.

Me: Do you?

Billboard: Yep.

Me: Are you of the Gertrude Stein school that ‘There is no repetition, only emphasis’?

Billboard: Nah.  Definitely, nah.

These modular homes are easily and conveniently transported to the place of your choice with the assistance of a very big truck.  We see a new implant, which has not yet gelled with its plot of land.  Can land reject a structure, like a body can reject an organ?

The house has an elevated door with no steps leading to it.  You’d have to take a flying leap to get in, stand on a ladder to use your key.  The houses are long and pale.   They hardly catch the eye, but encourage the eye to keep going.

I think about our modular existences; discrete selves, a rat’s nest of different identities.  But the self is also like a great expressway: when you are along for the ride, you neither see nor sense its beginning or end.

On Rt. 23, along Lake Huron, we are the only car for miles and miles and miles.  J reflects that this region once would have only been known to those willing to explore it on foot, along trails.  Intimacy of sole, arch, toes.

The Billboard makes a curious face when we are no longer looking but I catch it in the rearview mirror, where it is closer than it appears.

Advert, Adverse

A long time in the car makes it easy to play amateur ethnographer: to think you know something of a place because of what you can see. J is driving, preferring not to talk about anything that requires too much thought.  He has one hand thrown up on the wheel and his eyes trained where road and cloud merge.

and big L said, LET THERE BE

It’s McDonald’s that strikes up the flirtation first: $1.  Ahhhhhhh-some.

Really, I could have your crappy drink for four small quarters?  O joyful noise!  But in the slashing sunlight, I’m busy counting my unhatched chickens, imagining the faces of baby daughters I might or might not ever bear.  Mircea Eliade’s yoga tome lies in my lap.  I don’t need McD’s low cost beverage when I have the waters of consciousness—non-carbonated, but hey– for free.

“Even Mother Nature has an agent!”  Proclaims the next enigmatic billboard.  Beneath it, the tall weeds and milk thistle pods have no opinion.  The fat clouds suck in their breath.  Nature doesn’t need to sell itself—it’s just awesome, and you can take it or leave it.

ahhhhhhh-some-r.

We go through the outskirts of Luddington, a name suggestive of Poo Bear Honey-Makers and Devout Luddites. In Cheboygan, there is Yeck Farm Drive-Through and AllCock’s kitchen.  Where they cultivate and then serve penis with potatoes?

In Ocquecoc, Rosa’s “Squeeze Inn” has vacancies!  So, not such a squeeze after all.    Pathetic Puns are king in these out of the way places, still stamped with their Native names—names so beautiful they sound like secrets. We’re towing the scamp, so we don’t care if there are rooms available.  We’re like disjointed turtles, our home just slightly behind our back.

the mirror of awareness

On a cross-section of a tree, a shingle for “Open-Soon Café.”  The building stands in an otherwise empty lot; its windows have been sloppily and indefinitely covered with white-out.

“Eat or die,” says Jim Harrison, poet and diviner.

“Eat and die,” says Sara Nolan, observing her surroundings.

In a wide alfalfa field littered with un-baled hay, a Chihuahua stands at attention.   The landscape could swallow it whole.  It seems an act of mercy that any detail should stick out.   If this scene were a 500+-piece jigsaw puzzle, and a single, central piece were missing, the Chihuahua would be eliminated.   But these pieces are all there.  The tail is mute, the yaps drowned by speed.

In Lachine, an old man in a sunhat in the spotlight of high noon runs his tractor into a baby tree, planted in a perfect round of soil in the middle of his huge front yard.  He backs the tractor up, straightens his straight hat, and repeats.  Oddly, the tree doesn’t react.

Just when we’re really beginning to feel a part of the whole, the McDonald’s advertisement reminds us:  It’s good to be on top of the food chain. Yeah: fuck all you low-down critters, the sign adds, sub-textually, to the cows that loiter not too far beyond, where the grass is trimmed by their molars.  They don’t call it a chain for nothing.

fill up at the X

At Roger’s City Mobile Station, the twinkle-and-shine of stars is displaced by the neon awnings at the wide intersection: “Pulled Pork is BACK!” reads the sign at the cross-roads.  Someone is terribly excited by this news.  Horace, B.C.s: With my friend returned to me, I go mad with joy.  Perhaps at this very moment, a pulled-pork lover is having a porcine orgasm just imagining the chewing & swallowing & chewing & swallowing.

over here

O How the Mighty

Lake Leelanau is shallow as far as you can walk.  The wind smacks up the water.  Warnings are posted about sharp zebra mussels on the bottom: swim shoes advisable.

No Fun Allowed, I shout to the kids at the playground on shore.

JH arrives to join us from Milwaukee on the slow overnight ferry, which burns coal as it crawls across the huge, star-gulping mass of water.  J meets her in the jeep, brings her back to our scamp-site on the edge of Lake Leelanau, where the ducks look on and the morning bangs us over the head.  The brightness is so sharp it is as if it were just invented.

No more monkeys jumping on the bed.

coping mechanisms

We make strong tea and thick-ground coffee on the little burners, drink at the picnic table kicking our feet and considering the great envelope of grief.  JH’s dad, after much struggle, had been taken into that sealed envelope a few months prior by a stroke.  She dreamed of him the night before his death, not knowing his condition.  In the dream, her family walked into the Black Forest, her parents holding hands, content.  He looked back at her and smiled.

No more monkeys jumping on the bed. A cardiac conclusion.

Orpheus had that idea, too.  The looking back.

When a friend is going through it, sometimes the only thing to do is to sit in quiet together.  Being the lone wolf in the cave: this is how Thea Elijah, wild practitioner of 5-elements Chinese Medicine, describes the most acute stage of grief, the reckoning with the metal element.  M rehashed it for me one night in Jamaica Plain.  We sat on the kitchen floor eating cornbread with ghee and cinnamon and weeping and laughing while summer jiggled the doorknob.

Scraps of the that conversation come back, as J reads aloud to us the poetry of Joseph Stroud and the lyre echoes from Andalusia.  JH has holes in the knees of her jeans that widen and narrow like an extra set of eyes adjusting to the light. Each of us a wolf.  Each of us staring into the fire.  Between us, immutable rock.

We may be wolves in broad noon-light, but these ducks are not afraid.  They bop past, in step with one another.  To them, all our human discourse is a bunch of foreign quacks.  It is just us and god and the nightingales we recall.

caveless

At nightfall, cooking in the small skillets, we turn on “scamp radio”—the battery-powered transistor, which blasts tunes from the 70s, 80s, and 90s into the jolly, bloated rectangle of the scamp.    This is the time of the egg recall, causing much speculation in the news.  It’s the opposite of Easter, as one farm in Iowa has gifted all the states with salmonella.  The Easter Bunny, waiting out spin of seasons until Spring, is smug: see, Cadberry Cream Eggs aren’t so bad for you! The weather is so hot even the eagles look dizzy.

I wonder when Big G will do the ego recall.  That well-tended egg of self, gestating something so precious it doesn’t even know what to call it.  Its hard shell, it’s slippery interior.  To have friends beside you and fresh air rushing through the miniature windows and the smell of people existing out of doors and warm hands to hold…it makes the waiting to be called—to be called home, as some traditions call it—bearable.

Meanwhile, J stacks wood to begin a fire.

surya assures ya

M.C. of the W.C.

The stars make their crisp mudras after we leave JH at the Ferry dock for her return trip.  It is too late to go take a shower in the common restroom but I trudge off, dirty, to brush my teeth and make shower noises—then, by my logic, I’m sufficiently washed.

The “closed for cleaning” sign, written hastily in magic marker, hangs in the doorway.  Perfect.  An older man comes out of the women’s bathroom with a broken mop in his hand, looking at it as if it has accused him of something.  The damn thing came apart! He says, miffed.

The same magic-marker notice redirects me to go to the Green Building restroom; I ask him where that is.  He volunteers to ride me over in his golf cart, as he needs to replace the mop.  Turns out he’s covering maintenance for his buddy.  I say it’s mighty late to be cleaning a bathroom.  No problem: After this, he tells me he’ll be on patrol.  He’ll run home, grab a few beers, and circle the grounds until one a.m.  Rest assured.  In a world of impermanence, the beer supply dwindles.

Beers? I ask.  That’s one hell of a patrol.

I think it makes me sharper. He says.  I’ve been known to stop and socialize a bit, too. Knock back another beer or so.  People know me.

We laugh.  The night laughs.  It’s all just a bowl of cherries.

Bathroom, Part Deux

The next morning in the clean bathroom I see a little boy dawdling outside the showers.  He leans against the wall, examining his toes in his sandals.

Boy: Hi.

Me:  Hi.

Boy:  Do you like my eyes?

S: Yes.  Do you like my eyes?

Boy:  I like your eyes but I don’t like you.

S: Oh?  That’s too bad for me.

Boy: I like Kristen.

S: Where is she?

Boy:  Up North.

S: That’s a bummer.

Boy: She’s UP NORTH!

Mom [from shower]: Andrew?  Andrew?

S: No problem– we’re just flirting out here.

Andrew follows me to the sink where he glares at me as if the force of his eyesight could transform me into Kristen.  I remain distressingly me.  He blinks in disgust.

“Friday Lake Perch Yum.”  A nonsense Interval.

My not-quite haiku:

Torch Lake.

Cherry Juice

Concentrate.

“Brethren That Way”, they say?   The scarecrow intertwines his arms and sticks his big toe out in the direction of true North.

Well, “Don’t worry what people think.  They don’t do it very often.”  A quote I cannot place.

Post Facto

so much depends

At the U.P. Fort Algonquin Trading Post on the old Mackinac trail, Warren Hagen, a big-boned, big-fleshed clerk who is also third generation Tribal, tells us they carry the best sweet-grass in the world. You want to get yourself killed, he says, go down and pick some as a white manYou’ll get yourself killed fast.  That wasn’t part of our afternoon plan, but we take a few braids from the string from which they suspend.  The braids are firm and flexible.

J and I had hunted for sweet grass in the old horse pasture on the family property, then again in the clearing of the back acres.  His Dad had smelled it first while driving the mower, but couldn’t pick out the plants.  We snapped blades of grass in two, sniffed them—nope, this one just smells like plain old grass.  We put our faces close to the earth.  The grass glared back.  We just want to invite the gods in, I say.  But the grass must think we failed to notice the small gods, who don’t need to be invited because they never leave.

In the cluttered shop, J and I both fixate on the native flute, hanging from the low ceiling just above where the eye-level.  A small bear, carved from the single piece of wood, perches on the shaft.  A single feather graces the tip.  J asks permission, then blows a few notes.  It’s what tree and wind would say to one another in our absence.  He’s obviously going to buy it, eyes narrowed to the point where the cleft of the bear’s ass shows.  O, yes.

The trading post is brimming with trinkets and knick-knacks—many of them brought from Mexico or even Peru.  Made in China, one miniature says.  So is my underwear!  Sacks of black rice squat on the shelves.  Colossal scalloped shells turned empty-side up, innards shining, to be used for ceremonies.  This area is known for its Petosky stones, J says, as I pick up a small one. They are the remnant of when this place was under sea, so many tumbled fossils.

When Warren rings up our purchases, he adds, plus five dollars that I give to the governor, to keep her off my back.  He writes out the receipt by hand in script, runs the credit card through an antique looking machine.  One day the credit card itself will be that obsolete.  I look at the knives, the sage bundles propped everywhere, the baskets and brass bracelets.  You can make an offering out of anything if you’re willing to let it go.

Objectionable

map, territory, enh?

We make a brief stop in the Baude Amerindian Museum, housed in a converted garage, on our way out.  Among the documents on display are the illegal legal Totally Unfair Treaties made with the Tribes by Andrew Jackson et al, ceding huge amounts of land in exchange for protection.  Protection of the sort a piece of toilet paper offers you from a sudden hailstorm.

Andrew:  Hey, can you sign this thing?  Yeah, it says some stuff about stuff, land and stuff.  Here, isn’t this bead pretty?  You want it?  O.K., then sign this.  I know you can’t write.  Any mark will do fine.  Great, let’s go get drunk. That was more or less the government promise, disguised by jargon.

Objects of something very lost are kept here.  A canoe—alternately, canoo, canno—made from burnt out logs, scrapped with flint knives and shells.  Pipes, rescued from Climax, Minn.  A Tomahawk, used to execute those who committed crime against the tribe.

A garrulous woman stands at the front counter, reminding visitors that the museum is free.  We cut short her chatter, saying we have little time to stay.  She gives a slight nod: “Well, I’ll see you on your way out, unless spirits get you.”

Yes, Unless.

Whose Woods These Are I Think I ….

Eventually, we roll up to J’s home, Hubbard Lake, the jeep seats dented in the perfect cast of our butts.  It’s so good to be back I want to hug the dirt and dock and arugula sprouts by the waterfront.

In the woods, the animals know we’re coming and get upset.  Even when we tread softly and enter only with best intentions, the creatures are irritated—we’re a disruption.  They know us for who we are even if we don’t: predatory animals who have forgotten we’re animals.

When we remove our shoes and walk barefoot, we’re forced to step lightly because who wants to step on Unidentifiable Woods’ Stuff?  There is a certain decorum you must practice in the woods.  If you want to see anything, you must go slowly.  Luckily, J knows this and knows it well enough for two of us—from a lifetime of respecting the arrangement.   There is a language of the woods to be learned.  For me, it is a foreign tongue.

A deer makes what sounds like a sneeze-bark.  J says she smells us but can’t yet tell where we are.  The owls call and then pause, teenage bards loafing around in the twilight—they move from tree to tree, excitedly bored.  The nearby squirrel who, in turn, can’t find the owls but knows they are close, vocalizes distress.   Pin-wheeling in the dark, all of us.

At the trading post, Warren told us that the Native Americans played their flute tones by following the rise and fall of the tree-line.  Whatever they saw, they played.  Landscape conducted the melody.  No doubt who is in charge of the music.

We find feces, places where feral pigs have rooted.  Some days I’d rather be a feral pig, nothing more exciting than digging in dirt for more dirt.  We’re under the dazzle of pines, breath spent, respiratory piggy-bank cracked open from sprinting up and down the hills as fast as we can, hopping ferns and logs.

The spider webs catch on our faces.  Occasionally, we stop short before wrecking a creation: the warning comes from a bead of dew suspended in the middle of the threads, like the single tear of the bodhisattva on a day when sentience seemed a particular bummer for the majority.

The early season apples in the clearing are fattening by the day, tempting just about every living thing in the region to nibble them.  Eve is last in line, dematerialized as most products of fantasy.  She lolls by the exploding milkweed, letting the other animals see what happens when you put knowledge in your mouth.   A tiny garden snake slithers over her toes.  Whatever.

The Long Way

I take two planes, a public bus, a subway, yet another bus, and a car, all to get from Michigan back to Long Island.  My carbon footprint has tendonitis, whines about oversized bones and too much movement.  I wait in midtown Manhattan for the last leg with all my bags and all the signs and all the roads and all the heavy lightness of transit.

86th Street in gray hard joyous New York City.  A man in a rush brushes into a little girl.  Lets fly an expletive.

You don’t say fuck to a little four year old! Her mother yells quietly.

Your kid was in the fucking way! He justifies.

You’re the fuck! She says.

Either way you spin it, Righteousness does not prevail.

The function of man is to be happy. –Aristotle.

Or, spin it like a New-Yorker: The function of man is to be a happy fuck.

Baptismal

In Long Island, I put down my bags and plunge into the bay on Sammy’s Beach to cleanse off the hours of travel and to participate in the environment.  Not ten minutes later, freshly salted, swimming towards the channel where the plovers putter, I’m stung the length of my legs by a jellyfish, who is also participating in the environment.

I tear out of the water, run back along the beach, where sunset is amplifying the rocks and the gulls are picking through crabs they’ve cracked open.  My legs are stinging.  I pour white vinegar on them, then drop into the sand and stifle my skin.  A half-burial while the sea darkens.

 

holy disappearing

I have a late dinner with my parents, red wine and sea bass and tomatoes and greens and the tender conversation that signals arrival home after a significant journey.  My legs prickle and don’t quickly forget what a single tentacle can do.

The next day, when the temperament of sky has shifted, I walk down the road to the peninsula in hazardous winds.  The oaks and pines and runty new plants weave with the gusts.  I think, how do I stack up, when compared to this tree?  What have I made of myself that is more than this?

Over the phone, I ask Liz, 103, how she is, finally back from the hospital and reclining in her home-hospital bed, staging a protest against eating and even listening to her T.V. boyfriend, Charlie Rose.  I shout over the carousing on our porch, where my parents have company.  Beyond, the bay is pretending it is an ocean, churning up white-caps.  It’s a moot point. She says.

Right-O.

We stay on the phone, because that is what one does after cordiality has been razed.  It’s the kind of quiet that besets a pair at the end of a long road trip, in industrial territory, where things have ceased to be interesting or variable and are just themselves.  I can hear her breathing and clicking through her old brain for someone’s news to share.  This will either change or it won’t, she says.  Life just keeps going.

etcetera etcetera


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