The Seven C’s of Community

“C” words continually pop up in conversations about community; they circle my brain when I’m falling asleep, and dance in my mind before dawn. I’m awash in C’s! So, I decided to pick seven (my lucky number) and talk about what they mean to me.

First off, there’s Conflict. I want to believe conflict should never happen, and I don’t like dealing with it when it does. But, I have no choice but deal. Like small weeds in a garden, little conflicts quickly grow into unresolvable differences when left unaddressed. I know what my yard would look like if I didn’t diligently smother poison ivy and uproot sweetgum seedlings. Or maybe it’s like fixing a hole in a boat, as soon as it begins to leak. Anyhow, you get the picture. Best nip it in the bud, by speaking up and working out a solution.

Clarity. Let’s be clear, this is essential to everything from navigation (where am I headed?) to baking (am I making cookies or bread?) Clarity is especially important when working towards a common goal. First, I need to understand my own needs, goals, and expectations, or risk getting swept away by the energy of the group. Second, I need a clear picture of what we are trying to accomplish. Only then can I pick up my oars, assured I’m paddling in the right direction.

Communication. I once heard someone say, “You can’t over communicate,” and I believe this is true. I don’t live in a void, so I owe it to the people around me to be straight-up about my intentions. Likewise, I need to listen to what they are saying, and ask for clarification on what I don’t understand. Good communication means asking myself who might want to know what, and provide them the information. And it requires that I say what I’ll do, and do what I say.

Compassion. I’m continually surprised to find that not everyone thinks like me, or has the same standards, values, and needs. You’d think I’d be used to this by now! In some circles, I feel like I’m sitting in a canoe surrounded by yachts. In other company, I risk swamping a flock of rubber rafts. Either way, I need to paddle my own canoe. In the interest of harmony, I vow to allow others to be different. Compassion is the opposite of judgment.

Compromise. Well, this is not a popular word in the land of “Just Do It!” I was bottle fed the American Dream, and reached maturity in an era of consumer-enabled isolation. Community was something only needy people needed. Come to find out, I do need community, and it turns out the price of admission is compromise. I yield some aspects of my vision to support the vision of the group, a little privacy to belong, and a bit of time for the satisfaction of working towards common goals. And I’m continually impressed at how richly rewarded I am for my small concessions.

Commitment is the fuel that keeps me in the game. Without it, I would quit paddling with the first wave. In 1996, Bob and I got a taste of community in the steamy jungles of Belize. We realized the power of being connected to both the land and its inhabitants. Thirty years later, we moved to Moncure to recreate that connection and made a commitment to our neighbors at The Bend.

Conviviality. I saved the most important C for last. Potlucks, living room laughs, long walks through the woods, drinks on the deck, swimming parties, dance parties; these are all great ways to celebrate community. And then there’s the sublime; random encounters on driveway and trail, beaming smiles and outreached arms, or simply a knowing nod acknowledging an unspoken contract to enjoy each other’s company and have fun.

Many of my seven C’s sound like work, and it’s true – I like to earn my rewards. I’m a person who believes in work before play, and dinner before dessert. And sometimes, I get so mired down in earning, I forget to celebrate the rewards. So, as a reminder to myself, here are some of the benefits of community: companionship, contentment, connection, comfort, and camaraderie. So many C words!

Clarity Begins at Home

Clarity is essential to happiness and well-being, and I’ll happily step out on a limb to make this assertion. Or, an extension ladder, as is the case today. Today is window washing day.

In addition to washing windows, we are celebrating Bob’s 59th birthday. Birthday week (we prolong the pampering and chocolate cake) inspires me to write about one of Bob’s special talents – Clarity.

When friends come to the back door looking for Bob, I know their footsteps will have more spring to them when they leave because of Bob’s ability to find clarity in any situation. Bob begins by asking questions (another of his special gifts). And, while at first, he seems to be pulling us into a bog, his questions soon lead to solid ground. When the light bulbs begin going off, we see that Bob has done it again. He knows what to leave out, and what to leave in, and his advice is concise and to the point.

Bob tests out as an ENTJ (extraversion, intuition, thinking, judgment) on the Meyers Briggs personality spectrum. This set of traits has been nicknamed Field Marshall, and that fits Bob to a T. Field Marshalls are “good at systematizing, ordering priorities, generalizing, summarizing, marshaling evidence, and at demonstrating their ideas.” They are natural leaders, capable of seeing the whole picture, and pointing out a path forward. Personally, I will follow him anywhere, and we both know it.

The information age has been good for Bob. He now has at his fingertips answers to pretty much any question he or anyone else comes up with. And while you would think easy access to answers would make problem solvers of everyone, it hasn’t. That’s because not everyone has Bob’s talent for deciding which question needs to be answered first. Many of us go to the google and end up chasing information down a quagmire of rabbit holes. It’s Bob’s knack for finding the right path that has earned him guru status among our peers.

These thoughts come into focus for me as I stand on the fourth rung of an aluminum ladder with a bottle of Windex and a washcloth. I spray a pane and wipe at two years of wet, windblown dirt, spider poo, and sometimes little feather fluffs where a bird has smacked into the glass. It looks like I’m making a muddy mess until I take the dry side of the cloth and finish the job. Voila, a clear look at the inside of my house. All looks to be in order. I step down, move the ladder and tackle another one.

The Almighty We – the price of community

I learned at an early age that everything comes with a price. Everything costs something, be it cash or energy. Every bite of food had to be grown and processed, every asset built and maintained. In my world, there is no free lunch and for as far back as I can remember, I’ve done my best to earn my keep.

I’ve written about ‘who we are’ and ‘what we’re doing’. Now I’d like to chew on ‘how we contribute’. The wealth of a community is measured in assets. Orchards, roads, livestock, infrastructure, know-how, and labor all qualify as assets. Intentional communities usually build common areas which are maintained collectively. Some have a budget and managers. This is not the case with us. We have common areas owned by us all. Many of us are landowners and therefore have sovereignty over our property. We all own our time and energy. Sharing these assets is how we make our neighborhood feel like community.

Bob and I have a nice open floor plan, so we often host potlucks. Tami and Lyle share several miles of wooded trails which Lyle selflessly maintains with Kubota and chain saw. Alisa has created a farm, and a space for workshops and gatherings. Stuart pops in with vegetables, Bob mows over at the school, Chefs Whitney and Kabui are always cooking up something, and Hope often shows up with floral arrangements from her gardens.

When Bob gets too old to mow, the school will find another volunteer. Jason and Haruka used to provide the neighborhood with fresh produce. Now we’ve got two new farms. Maybe someone will move in who knows how to fix engines. Our arrangements evolve organically as people come and go, grow up and leave, age, and get sick. Fortunately, we have multi-generational appeal. The old folks need the young folks and vice versa. Still, there are no guarantees this neighborhood will be working together to create community 50 years from now, or even 20. And that’s fine with me. I am pleased as punch to contribute to the collective enrichment of this group of people here and now. It feels good to belong and to be needed and that’s enough for me.

Each individual decides how much to contribute. Sovereignty is a double-edged sword. I love the freedom to do anything I choose on my property, but may not appreciate what my neighbor does on theirs. Harmony demands we accept, without judgement, a myriad of lifestyles. It matters how we regard one another. It’s not enough to share. We need to be nice.

Happily, we hum along in harmony most of the time, getting things done despite lack of budget or hierarchy. The desire to belong motivates us to interact, to share our assets, and give of ourselves. There is no set price of admission in our village. The price of community is involvement, and how much we pay up to us.

More musing on community:
The Almighty We – Proximity
The Almighty We – Expectations

The Almighty We – Expectations

Community is absolutely necessary to humans, probably fourth in the hierarchy of needs after air, water, and food. But most of us don’t get too tangled up with our neighbors.

For one thing, it’s culturally appropriate in the U.S. to live independently. For another, we haven’t had much experience living together. First there were waves of immigrants, then the westward expansion, and finally, we all got cars and went our separate ways. We don’t depend on each other like villagers in developing countries, who need each other and know it. Americans are designed for independence.

As a kid, I idolized the heroes of 50’s and 60’s television, Tarzan, The Lone Ranger, Batman. They were rescuers who seldom, if ever, needed rescuing themselves. I became a movie buff and was entranced by “The Seven Samurai.” A village of farmers hire some samurais to protect them from the bandits who make off with their rice harvest year after year. The samurai risk much to put an end to this injustice. One of the most interesting facets of this movie is the secret longing these samurai have for villages they could call home. Sadly, they know they will forever be outsiders, and at the end of the movie, the seven go their separate ways.

Eventually, I too, longed to belong. When I first hooked up with Bob, he taught me how to be more of a team player. We traveled, and gained a reputation for throwing in with others. In this way we honed our interdependence skills.

Ten years ago, we made the big leap and joined a group of community-minded neighbors in North Carolina. We didn’t discuss our expectations, but we liked the concept. And for some years now we refer to ourselves as an unintentional community. We’re rather proud of that. Its working, this community thing, and we’re not even trying too hard. We get together for potlucks, come to each other’s aid when asked, and do our best to get along.

Until, lately, we decide to put some intention into it. We ask ourselves, “What do we want our community to look like?” Now we were faced with a “blind men and the elephant” situation. Some of us want a deeper spiritual connection, others, more programs and facilities. We all agree we want food grown on the premises, a school for our children, and a burial ground. We take inventory and begin deploying under-used assets. We say no to nothing, all new ideas are worth manifesting. We want it all without losing our peace and quiet, and security. The children swim in the pond, we are a village of fun and parties. My head begins to spin.

I reach into my memory for insight, and find a dog story. It was my first day at dog obedience class. I’d brought a young husky bitch, a sweet dog in need of a program. When the trainer explained that we dog owners could have it any way we liked it, I remember laughing to think it could be this simple. If we wanted our dog to jump up into our arms, that’s what we would teach it to do. If we wanted a dog to pull a cart, we could have that, too. Eat out of our hand, never touch our skin with its lips, pee outside, pee in the toilet; anything was possible. All we had to do was decide.

Back to our community. I give it some thought and can’t come up with anything structural. I don’t know what I want us to look like. I think we look fine as we are. I’m getting everything I need, perhaps a little more. I decide to turn the question around. “What do I expect from my community?” The answer erupts with clarity; acceptance, respect, and support. That’s all I want, and I want it for all of us. No more, no less.

Sounds simple.

Read Part I: The Almighty We – Proximity

The Almighty We – Proximity

I learned something about community from the dogs in Nicaragua. Thirteen years ago, Bob and I found ourselves managing a vacation lodge on a 3200-acre Caribbean island without police or doctors. We lived in small house inside a large chain link compound. Six dogs served as security guards.

The first time one of the dogs got outside the fence, we tossed her back in. The other five turned on her as if she were any other intruder. We were shocked. Occasionally all six of them would escape and become a snarling mass of teeth and flying fur. The rest of the time they were backyard pets, goofy and polite.

Their hierarchy was completely territorial, the lone pack member instantly turned outsider by a few millimeters of fence. The humans were equally insular, separated from the mainland by miles of water, and therefore connected to everyone on this little island. At one point we had a problem with someone who was interfering with our staff and wanted to ban him from the grounds. But the lodge owner stayed our hand with, “You can’t write anyone off on an island.”

Another thing about this island; although there were no elected officials, everyone knew where to bring their troubles. We took our problems to a handful of elders who could be counted on to shoulder the burdens of dispute. Every social ripple ended up at their doors.

It’s easy to see how people sort themselves into groups on an island. You are either on the island or not, resident or visitor. Within the group of residents are levels of belonging based on time. On Maui we were often asked, “How many years have you lived on the island?” “One,” earned a sniff, “Two,” a nod, and “Four,” the hint of a smile.

Likewise, down here at the bend we hesitate to write anyone off, there are a handful of elders, and concentric circles of belonging. Tami and Lyle are the center of our community for all three reasons. They’ve been here the longest, actually sold many of us our homes, and never shrink from the difficult work of keeping peace. Radiating outwards are those who have lived here and been actively involved in the community for fifteen years or longer, then ten, then five. Populating the outer circles are renters, interns, and future homeowners.

But, unlike dogs inside a fence, or islanders strapped to a rock in the sea, our community members are far more mobile. Regardless of what I want to think about my connection to my neighbors, the truth is I am often outside the fence. I hop in the car and join other tribes for a time, then come back home and try to get back inside the fence.

It’s a challenge to behave in a tribal manner despite our jet-setting lifestyles. No way did our tribal ancestors move freely in and out of other tribes, yet we often find ourselves in communities dozens or hundreds of miles from home. We are constantly reconnecting. Despite our mobility, we do our best to mimic the bond we imagine tribal members had with one another. I have to say, we’re doing a pretty good job.

‘Read Part II: The Almighty We – Expectations

Potatoes!

Those who know me well have heard me say, “I’m never bored,” and yet I worry my life appears boring. My life is as predictable as the sunrise, especially in the culinary department. Bob and I get up, make the bed, and sip coffee and cocoa at our desks, before wandering down the well-worn paths of our day. I drive to work three days a week, and divide my time at home between yardwork, desk, and kitchen.

My fourteen or so hours in the kitchen yield a rotating menu of our favorite dishes. We used to be gourmets, were never foodies, and have settled in the middle with extraordinarily simple, down-home comfort food. Of late, Bob’s been pulling potatoes out of the garden at a furious rate, so there are plenty of potato meals. You can tell we came from Irish stock! We’re eating new potatoes with sour cream and garden chives, potato salad, oven fries, scalloped or mashed potatoes and fried potatoes in our Saturday night burritos. When people drop by they leave with a bag of potatoes. German Butterball, Yukon Gold, Colorado Rose, Rose Apple Finn, French Fingerling, Red Thumb – yum!

Shelley and I swap tomatoes for potatoes. There’s nothing better than a slice of home-grown heirloom on toast with lots of mayonnaise after my Sunday morning walk with Shelley. Last week she put up a half a bushel of her tomatoes sauce and gifted us a couple of jars with one of her Delicata squash. I went right home and put eggplant parmesan with roasted squash on the menu for Tuesday. The next week she gave me cucumbers which I turned into tangy refrigerator pickles. On Thursday’s Bob returns from farmer’s market with eggplant, sweet corn, cucumbers, and squash. Most of our other neighbors aren’t keen on potatoes. “No thanks,” they say, eyes rolling, “We’ve got plenty of potatoes.”

On Sunday I plan the upcoming week’s menu on a dry erase board. Lately, I don’t have to do much erasing or writing. We may as well have cheezburgers with potato salad on Monday again this week. Ditto for new potatoes and sauerkraut on Thursday (did I mention that Bob makes delicious sauerkraut using cabbages from Granite Springs Farm) chick’n sandwiches and sweet corn on Friday, Saturday burritos with fried potatoes, and potatoes again on Sunday.

We bake all our bread and meat analogs: veggeroni, ribs, veggie burgers, breaded seitan cutlets. Whenever possible we buy this season’s dried legumes for black bean soup, Greek butter beans, chili, garbanzo Brunswick stew, baked beans, and cassoulet. These are nice served with a crisp salad and corn tortilla quesadillas. We doll up our salad with homemade croutons and pickled beets, refrigerator pickles, tomatoes, and homemade balsamic vinaigrette.

I love the instant gratification of the kitchen and will often go there rather than my desk. A few years ago I started listening to audiobooks while I cook which made it even more addictive. Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, The Evanovich “One for the Money” series, “Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, Gone Girl, Poisonwood Bible, and Go Set a Watchman. I get them from the library or stream them off Youtube. Next up, one of my very favorite reads, 100 Years of Solitude.

As if this weren’t enough fun, Bob set up a projector and screen in our living room so we can watch part of a movie or TV series while we eat dinner. We found Downtown Abbey especially enjoyable, and are addicted to House of Cards. Loved Stranger than Fiction, Whatever Works, Sweet Bean, Zootopia, and Sully. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Youtube, we are seldom at a loss for something good to watch. “Dinner and a movie with my best friend, again!” Bob predictability exclaims.

This is predictability by design. We two old folks have spent years fine-tuning recipes and rituals that bump our quality of life into the “no comparison” zone. No matter what challenges our day presents, we close with a stellar meal, and this time of year it usually involves potatoes. Call it boring, I call it delicious!

Boiling Point

I step outside into a shroud of stupefying air. Still chilled from the air conditioning, the hot air feels good to me, like when I open a hot oven on a winter’s day. I breathe it in. It tastes like a movie of my life, a feeling so basic and all-powerful, some might call it god. If this is my last breath, I happily surrender.

I imagine this is what it feels like to freeze to death. You stop fighting to keep your insides at 98.6. You peacefully give in to the elements and become one with the world outside your body. You are reclaimed.

I poke around in the yard until self-preservation kicks in and the heat shepherds me inside. Back at my desk, I see that Amy Armantrout has shared an article about global warming on Facebook. She’s looking for feedback, so I dive into “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells from the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

I’m surprised at what I learn. Apparently, there are ancient diseases trapped in Arctic ice, “an abridged history of devastating human sickness, left out like egg salad in the Arctic sun.” As the planet heats up, we’re only a few degrees away from another round of Bubonic Plague.

Meanwhile, right here in real time, the air is becoming increasingly more toxic. I learn that our cognitive abilities are negatively affected by high carbon dioxide-to-oxygen ratios. And that carbon dioxide just reached 400 parts per million and is estimated to reach “1,000 ppm by 2100,” Wallace-Wells writes, “At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.” Maybe that explains why we’re not all worked up over what’s coming down the pike. “Surely this blindness will not last,” the author pleads with his readers.

Perhaps it’s for best, this dumbing down. Natural selection may solve the problem the way Kurt Vonnegut Jr. proposed in his novel, “Galapagos.” In that story, the isolated human survivors of a world-wide disease outbreak evolved into furry, sea lion-like creatures without a care in the world. Turned out our big brains were the biggest threat to humanity ever invented.

I think back to my surrender on the back porch moments ago. I was as comfortable as a frog in a pot of water brought slowly to boil. As Daniel Quinn observed in “Ishmael,” put a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will hop out. But, put a frog in a pot of cool water and bring it slowly to a boil, and a frog will sit there and turn into stew. We are that frog, and our pot is boiling.

The Decommissioned Centurion

“Our fickle bodies,” Bob remarked when I showed him my throbbing index finger. “All I did was pull a weed,” I whined, laying the swollen digit back on its bed of ice. Tami saw me minutes after it happened, a purple crease on a pale sausage. She comforted me with “This happens to me sometimes; guess we’re getting old.”

Only a few days earlier, I’d had to dig a splinter from underneath the nail on this very finger. I had washed my hair and laid the towel to dry over the wooden porch railing. After dinner, I grabbed at my towel and yanked my hand away when the dark sliver of wood bit into my finger. I didn’t quite see stars. Instead, I flashed on one of those World War II POW scenes the nuns used to show us in grade school before the duck and cover drills. (No wonder I dream about body parts.)

This seemed like more than a coincidence. Same finger, same week. I thumbed through Louise Hay’s “Heal Your Body” list. Under Problem, I found “Index Finger” and under Probable Cause it said, “Represents ego and fear.”

I didn’t see that coming! I suspected I might find something about fault finding, finger pointing, criticism, or judgement. I began to doubt the woman I’ve trusted since the 80’s. There’s nothing wrong with my ego, I thought, and I’m not afraid of anything.

I slept with my right hand elevated, and in the morning my finger was back to normal. But I couldn’t let go of Louise’s verdict. The words, “fear,” “ego,” “criticism,” and “judgement,” scrabbled at the back of my mind until I knew I had no choice but connect them.

“Do you think ‘fault finding’ has anything to do with fear?” I asked a friend, afraid of her answer. She’s one of those friends, though who knows how to deliver honesty in a velvet glove. Also, we are both first-borns, both diligently responsible for the behavior of our younger siblings. She realized she had to be in charge the day one of the neighbor kids drowned when she wasn’t paying attention. And it seems I always knew. My mother told me recently that I was “the centurion – the guard who watched out the door to see if everything was alright with my brothers.”

So we learned at an early age to recognize potentially dangerous behavior. It was our job to head mishaps off at the pass. Kids with matches, no, no, no, no. Swimming too far out into the bay, nope. All must be reported and/or addressed. Elsewise, we would hear about it. “Why didn’t you say something?” “How could you let this happen?”

That explained the connection between fear and judgement. As for ego, we agreed that pointing out other people’s faults is grand food for ego. I hated to think I was one of those people who make themselves feel good at other’s expense but the writing was on the wall. There is only one verdict for this unpalatable epiphany. Throttle back on the finger pointing. Decommission the centurion.

As a litmus test, I asked Bob what he thought. “That would be a good thing to work on,” he said with more gusto than expected. So I’ve stepped away from the score board. My decommissioned-self suppresses vocal criticism and avoids passing judgement. Blissful impartiality, here I come!

I thought it would be harder, this turning a blind eye. I imagined shivering in a corner with withdrawal symptoms. But it’s been as easy as tossing aside a winter coat on a warm day. Sure, I still notice the behavior of others, but I don’t feel the need to criticize. I’m loving my new freedom, and I owe it all to one little finger.

Paradise Unhinged

Against proper judgment but tacitly supported by their spouses, two of the sons and the oldest, a daughter, drove into the heart of Amish country. On the surface they were checking on the condition of their parents’ vacant house, euphemistically referred to as “The Farm.” In reality, it was voyeuristic reconnaissance, and this year the daughter had upped the stakes. She aimed to remove a photograph from the third floor bedroom wall.

It was a picture of her mother holding her as a baby, something her mother might give her if she asked. But she hadn’t asked and hoped not to get caught. All but the oldest son moved away decades ago and once a year the daughter came to visit. In previous years, they had left everything exactly as they found it, out of respect tinged with childhood fear.

At eighty-five and ninety-one, their parents were beyond navigating the narrow pathways and stairs. Ten years ago, a bone-crushing car accident put the woman in a nursing home. When she regained the use of her legs, the kids helped her move to an apartment in town without stairs, near the bus line and the church. The man remained alone at the farm for another seven years. Without his wife to temper his hoarding habit, the trails inside the house had filled in so he moved to town, too.

With the sun low in the sky and their blood pumping, the three grown children parked on the rocky lane some distance from the house. “I don’t want to scratch the paint on my van,” explained the oldest son. The younger son grabbed a bag of work gloves and they climbed up the rocky driveway through a tunnel of encroaching undergrowth.

At the top, the youngest pointed out two tall trees and told their stories, how they came into possession of the seedlings and planted them forty years ago. Back then they had repainted the house, turning the faded green shutters to red. The mother had always wanted a white house with red shutters.

Not long ago, the man had siding put on the house and it still looked pretty good. But the barn has since gone to ground, the garden buried in weeds, and a legacy of cars rust into the landscape. There is the first car the daughter ever drove, forty-seven years earlier, sinking under half a ton of books. Their father was an English professor.

Twenty feet from the front door, they noticed a light on in the living room. They imagined a squatter with a shotgun. But they could see that the front door was still blocked by its wall of clutter. They stalked the perimeter, high stepping through brambles and poison ivy. The daughter tied back her long grey hair, her spinal cord tightening with each step. All they found were broken windows and animal trails. No fresh trash, no path worn by human weight.

They returned to the front porch and pawed through the rubble like badgers, handing stuff back bucket-brigade style. Hedge shears, a scoop shovel, weed trimmer, an axe. “That might come in handy,” the daughter remarked. The youngest chuckled, breaking the tension. “This is insane,” they thought.

Eventually they were able to pull the storm door open several inches. The daughter knocked and called, “Hello! Anyone home?” Hearing nothing, they pushed at the inside door until they could get an arm through. Things must have shifted. “We used to call it ‘the shifting sands'” said the younger son, “Put something down and it disappears.”

Despite the trouble with his back, the older son knelt and snatched at the avalanche of debris, getting ahold of one piece at a time and tossing it further inside the kitchen. They tested the door every couple of minutes until it gave, wide enough to squeeze through, breath held. It was growing dark and they’d left the flashlight in the car. The youngest used his phone to light the way. Dread closed upon their hearts but they forged ahead.

They slid across a morass of plastic bags and magazines, through the kitchen to the narrow stairs, willing them to hold their weight. Without incident, they made it to the second floor, pausing to behold the ruins of three bedrooms. Outside, the sun had set. The photograph in the attic beckoned.

Another steep flight of stairs, and they were standing in a room barely big enough for the queen-sized bed, the same bed the parents used to conceive all six children.

Beyond the bed, on the wall next to a broken window was the picture. The daughter stepped towards it and something squished beneath her feet. Her brother raised his cell phone flashlight to find the floor was covered in animal scat. “Animals,” said the older son, “You know they’re in here hiding,” and stepping around his sister, he removed the picture from the wall.

She returned to the hotel exhausted, clutching her prize. Her husband’s balmy voice brought her into the present, a place from which to shake the past. She felt dirty, buried, bruised. She went through half a bar of soap in the shower, felt as if she were swimming towards the surface, towards the light. She joined him in bed and slept like the dead.

Bridging the Gap

As he does every year, Bob rents a car and drives us to DC, our first stop on an annual trek to see my parents and four of my five brothers. We spend the night at our friend Ned’s and pick up my brother Joe at Dulles in the morning. He’d nearly missed his flight. “It’s not a vacation unless you’re running through the airport!” He says this every year.

We decide to make a vacation bingo card. If Jim says “You know, it’s funny,” we’ll mark off a square. If John suggests we taste the honey locust blossoms, if we sneak out to the farm, if Dad loses his temper, if the great grands run up and down the wheelchair ramp and piss off the old folks.

The three of us, me, Bob, and Joe make our rounds. We have a two night layover at Jim and Kathryn’s lake house before heading west. They’ll catch up to us in a couple of days. I know we’re getting close to Shippensburg when the scent of suburbia gives way to liquid shit. Cow manure is the smell of Amish country in the spring.

We’re staying in the fourth floor turret room at Shippen Place. Just like last year. Entering the lobby I’m hurled into 1970. Heavy metal head banger riffs, and plump teenagers hoisting trays for pocket money. They haven’t changed the tape in years. The heart thumping music makes me edgy. I choose the back stairs for my escape and find myself in an alley named Apple Avenue. Someone has stuck a bleached white washcloth between the door and frame so they can get back in without going through the lobby. I hesitate for a moment before wedging it back in place.

Outside, the streets are refreshingly warm but soon turn steamy as I trudge across a memory landscape. I clip past the Methodist Church with the loudspeakers that ring the quarter hour from seven until ten. I pretend not to see a man smoking on his back steps in a dingy beater tee. We kids used to call them “grandpa overalls shirts.” I pass another church and another, parking lot after parking lot.

My fact pattern begins to blur. I’m not seeing things as they are but rather as they were. I first hear that phrase from Kathryn. “It’s lawyer speak for ‘the story.'” I return to our room where Bob’s earnest smile brings me back to the present. Thank god I met this man, I think.

I wonder how my brother John can live here. Like me, he left as a teenager, but he and Darla moved back after they had their three kids. Unlike us, Darla grew up here. Her parents and grandparents are buried here. Their ten grandchildren have never known any place else. They play in the same parks she played in as a child.

The morning after Jim and Kathryn arrive in Shippensburg we go for a wander. Kathryn and I follow Jim to a patch of lawn where he peers across the street trying to picture a house that’s no longer there. It seems significant, so Kathryn and I obligingly squint toward the object of his mind’s eye. He shows us a hill where he lost control of his bike and crashed into the back of someone’s leg. He got yelled at, he says. Jim was only five years old when we moved here from his first home in New Jersey. It was my eighth move. I was sixteen with one foot out the door.

We cross the tracks near where the Harpers used to live. Those afroed twins everyone called “the Harper girls” were my closest friends during that year and a half. We were a triad of trouble. Together we mourned when Jimi Hendrix, and then Janis died. Once we decided we’d had it and ran away to their older brother’s place in Harrisburg. A day or two later we were arrested while sitting at a dimly lit bar reaching for three open bottles of Rolling Rock.

We walk past what used to be Julia’s house, a handsome Victorian that dominates the corner of Orange and Prince. Julia took me in when I was seventeen, after my parents and I mutually agreed to split. Pointing, I say “I lived in that room up the stairs behind the little window.”

We cut through Grace United Church of Christ’s parking lot where I remember waking up with the mother of all hangovers, grateful to have blacked out most of the night before. I had made the mistake of going out with a nice looking guy from school. He showed up with a friend and a bottle of rum. After that I stayed away from the clean cut guys and stuck to freaks, geeks, and blacks.

Walking past a Victorian home with a pointy-roofed turret Jim says, “You know, it’s funny – I used to be afraid of this house.” Kathryn says she loves the house, even its unnaturally pointed hanging baskets and hollow-eyed tower. Nothing about that house is lurking in her past. But I’m looking at it through Jim’s eyes and feel his shudder, his urge to run. We turn back towards the hotel. It’s close to ninety degrees and I’m spent, sticky and soiled.

The next day, I climb into my brother John’s van for a trip to North Mountain. The honey locust in his yard has mostly dropped its blossoms and they are drifting like snow on his driveway. “These are old” he says, shoving at them with his boot toe, “They taste better when they first come out.” A block away we pass another tree just coming into bloom. “Grab a bunch of those, youngster,” he drawls. I reach out my window and bend back a branch. I pop some in my mouth and smack my lips for emphasis, like a giraffe. They are good, kind of chewy with a hint of vanilla. John is laughing.

John and I hike a shaded trail to an old dam and look across a valley that used to be a lake. On the way down, he dives into the undergrowth and retrieves a green canvas camp chair. I test it for comfort while he leans back on a log. We talk about everything. After we’ve rested he returns the chair to its hiding place.

On the way home John stops in front of a small house with two barns and a “For Sale By Owner” sign. He and Darla are thinking of selling their two-story home, planning ahead for their golden years. I dream along with him for a while before he pulls the van into gear and drives through a 130-year old covered bridge. I imagine the sound of horse and buggy echoing off the timber sides. Livestock doesn’t spook at the water below while crossing a bridge like this. Some people call them kissing bridges.

Out here amid the orderly farms, away from that little asphalt town with its forty-eight churches I see so much more than that old fact packet of teenaged angst. I feel a sense of place and see generations of family when I look through my brother’s eyes.