Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Round Barn, Morrisville, Vermont (1980)

From 1975 until 1995 I drove the back roads of Vermont, very often with my camera. I adored my adopted landscape, of course. In the fall of 1977, San and I moved to a big new house on the edge of the village of Hyde Park, about 30 miles south of Canada and an easy 2-hour drive from Montreal. We were ten miles north of the year-round resort town of Stowe, an hour's drive northeast of Burlington and the view of Lake Champlain, and about 45 minutes in good weather from Montpelier, the state capital and home of quite a nice book store and a natural foods market that sold the home-made bread of a local humanist baker, Jules Rabin. Just east of Hyde Park lay the town of Morrisville, and just outside of town, on the road to Lake Elmore and then onward to the back entrance to Montpelier, sat this round yellow barn.

Just beyond the barn was a small country home of a woodworker whose business was named The Wood Nebbish. The word nebbish, I have just discerned, means a "pitifully ineffectual, luckless, and timid person." Until the age of 13, I hadn't heard any Yiddish expressions, having been raised Lutheran and schooled with Lutherans.

I am not moving toward endorsements of any particular religious theme here. This passage is about how the notion of religion was formed in me as a cultural idea rather than a theological one. My father, the architect, recounted a fateful letter home from boarding school at the age of 15, when he informed his father, minister of the Lutheran church in the small German-speaking town of Hamburg, Minnesota, that he was not going to become a church minister, musician, or teacher like his 9 siblings. This declaration was not a separation from his church. Church-going was at the core of his way of life. It was the same way with Mom, who had been raised in the Catholic church and had become a Lutheran before she met Dad.

Dad and Mom were different kinds of Lutherans, but neither was given to discussion of religion. For them, a code of beliefs was a fixed point in life, an anchor. It was in a Lutheran Sunday School that I had a transformative experience that gave status to questioning and opened the door to interpretation. So I became a third kind of Lutheran, more in league with my cousin, Walt Bouman, one of several theologians in the family. I became the kind of Lutheran who could inquire into other religions, stop attending church, and one day welcome a marriage ceremony conducted by a Buddhist priest who lived in a monastery in Jemez, New Mexico. I, too, am anchored by a system of beliefs. I, too, have something one might call a theology, or a cosmology. What I might call it doesn't matter to me. That I have it at all is what links me to my parents' cosmology and to yours, Reader.

A propos of the Christmas season, I discovered the fervor of Dad's convictions when I was in 7th grade and said I wanted the Elvis Christmas Album for Christmas. I might just as well have proposed that he give me an encyclopedia of satanic practices. He exploded in rage. There is no better way to say it. He didn't break up the house or batter me. Remaining in his easy chair, he simply "went balistic" as we would learn to say a decade later. He didn't use the term "blasphemy," though it applies to his reaction.

I did acquire that LP record, though not through any act of his! He did not seize it, ruin it, confiscate the record player, or prevent my memorizing its satanic verses. To this day I do a fair imitation of Elvis's "Blue Christmas," if you're not paying much attention and have other things on your mind.

This began with "nebbish" and the exoticism of Yiddish expressions. In junior high school they buzzed around me left and right. My 9th grade girlfriend, Arlene, liked the word "meshugganah" (crazy). I never asked her to translate it and I never used it myself. I sensed these terms were "cultural property." The absurdity of violating those cultural boundaries is one of the jokes in the movie, "A Mighty Wind." Another word I heard a lot and never understood until just now was, "schlemiel," meaning a habitual bungler.

Last Saturday Kathy and I watched the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Les Contes d'Hoffmann. It was a fabulously theatrical experience, true Grand opera, and one peripheral character in the third tale is named Schlemil. Nothing about his deportment suggested he was a bungler, though.

Well, enough reminiscing about how we form ideas about ourselves and others.

My photo of the round barn is the first of a series of desktop wallpaper images I'm going to post to my Flickr site for any and all to enjoy. I'm using the round barn this week as my desktop image.

Once I started growing daylilies, farm fields like that always caught my eye as potential daylily farms run by me. I imagined acres and acres of vibrant color and I went on like that for several years before it dawned on me that someone was going to have to do a tremendous amount of digging, washing, dividing, and weeding. I didn't have to ponder the scale of that labor very long before I scaled back my dream to a scope that I could possibly manage if everything went well for me and I developed the strength of Hercules.

My heart goes out to those who have lost their mothers recently. My mom died peacefully, slipped away during a surge of misplaced optimism about her imminent release from the hospital after her final COPD episode. Mom only had to endure 9 months in the nursing home. It may have seemed like an eternity to her. Until the big hurricane in 2004, Mom had been able to live independently, in a manner of speaking, with very limited eyesight and intensive visitation by my sister and brother-in-law. The stress of the hurricane or simple progression of her disease made it untenable for her to live without continuous monitoring. On Sunday evenings before her transfer to the nursing home she and I had weekly chats. I remember the sound of her voice on the other end of the line as if we just spoke last night. She had an earthy sense of humor, having been raised on a farm in New Jersey, and it served her well when there was nothing to do about various indignities except extract a laugh with a play on words. Her response to word play led me to name my big, raspberry 2010 daylily MOM'S MIRTH. The flowers are as colorful and big as her sense of humor.

San, too, had a laugh the night before the life ebbed out of her. I recall her last days as if I just helped her through them. My daily life seems nested in memories like those Russian wooden dolls-within-dolls. When Kathy recounted her day for me yesterday I was sure I discerned the 10-year-old who carries a bubble of joy up through the layers of memory to the adult Kathy I married in July.

The turn of another year approaches; the light of days lengthens again; our sorrows and joys disperse and blend within us and like geraniums in the window we lean toward the light.


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