Oct 07

All Hallows Eve

I’ve never much cared for candy, at least not of the sort you get on Halloween (maple sugar candy? — sure, truffles? — lovely, Butterfingers? — entirely missable). The holiday itself, though, I adored.

My town’s big Halloween event — a chili supper and dessert auction hosted by the FFA — is going on right now. I’m hoping I get some trick-or-treaters or I’ll feel really irked about having shelled out $10 for candy (a bargain, I realize — we routinely spent several times that when I lived in the ‘burbs).

What I loved about Halloween was partly the costumes, but what I really loved was running around at night. (I loved running around at night so much that I figured out a way to get paid for it when I was in college, a feat I haven’t managed since).

For four glorious years, from third through sixth grades, I went out and about at night with one or another of my friends, and we roamed through the neighborhood, sizing up the houses, sizing up eachother, sizing up the other groups and gangs of kids out doing the same thing. Halloween was wonderful not because of the candy, and not even because of the costumes, though I loved the costumes. It was wonderful because kids were in charge. We were all over, and we were in control of the night.

Or so it seemed.

Really, of course, we only got that impression because we were fortunate enough to live in a place where our parents believed we could be let out at night, because they knew one another, and new we’d be taken into someone’s kitchen if things went wrong, and that that someone would likely do more or less what they would do.

I hate it when my most treasured memories turn out to be the products of socio-economic privilege, but I suppose that’s part of the price one pays for that ease. Just for tonight, though, I’m going to try to remember the leaves crunching underfoot and whirling down from the trees, and the darkness that seemed darker that night, despite our flashlights and throwaway luminescent wands, and the way we all looked like ourselves but not quite like ourselves, the way our costumes seemed funny inside but outside began to fit us like a second skin, and the way we ran through the streets and gardens and shortcuts that only kids knew. I’m going to remember running and spinning and whooping and standoffs that put your average western to shame. I’m going to remember night, and I’m going to remember freedom.

Aug 07

On the Importance of Landscape, and the Landscape of the Imagination

The other day my friend Sara and I were discussing camp. She went to a number of camps; I went to one camp for many, many years. Neither of us had a particularly good time.

During the first five years of my life, we went to Enosburg Falls, Vermont every summer to stay with my father’s parents. The summer of 1981, though, my grandfather died, and a month later, my father died, and after that we never went back. The summer of 1982, when I was six, I went to the hippie summer school (a bit different then from what it is now), which, despite the fairly free flowing nature of the Montessori school I’d gone to before that, was too free for me. It seemed like going to school with an amoeba, never knowing which way it was going to move next, or when it would gather you in and when it would spit you out. The next summer, I started going to camp in Maine, and for seven weeks every summer (with one exception, when I was seventeen), starting after first grade and ending right before college, I went to that camp, first as a camper and then, the last two years, as a counselor. And then, just as suddenly, I stopped going.

Today I was reading through Booklist at the library and came across a familiar name in the Cookery section: Phoebe Damrosch was a girl a year or two younger than me who went to the same camp.� We were in a play together, and when I was a junior counselor, she was in my cabin.

It was a bit jarring, because although I think about camp quite often, I almost never see or talk to or even much think of any of the people I knew there.

Wohelo was very big into having its campers make lifelong friends. I learned a lot of things there–swimming, sailing, windsurfing–they even tried to teach me tennis, though with miserable results–but I never made any real friends. I spent a lot of time there as the odd one out, and though that bothered me, it must never have bothered me very much, because I kept going back. When I remember things about camp, they rarely involve other people. I remember the day I passed my windsurfing solo. I remember sailing idly by myself, often drifting off whatever course I was supposed to be on: I loved to sail, but I was never very good at it, and I finally gave it up after capsizing an MIT Tech Dinghy for the umpteenth time. I remember swimming miles and miles–we swam, at the older girls’ part of the camp, between two docks far enough apart that it took three round trips to make a quarter of a mile. I remember walking back from the showers once or twice a week, feeling cleaner than I ever have before or since.� And I remember watching the sun set over the lake every night.� In my first cabin, when I was seven, I had to hold my head up to see out the window.� My last few summers there I climbed out onto the rocks and lay back, nothing but rock below me and water around me, and the reds and golds and pinks and purples of the sunset of the sunset spilling into the water.� At that point, it didn’t seem to matter very much to me that the girls in my cabin had asked me why I brushed my hair funny, or told me I had to say swear words or they’d push me out the fire escape door, or whispered among one another just loud enough for me to hear, or made fun of my underwear. All those things bothered me while they were happening, but when I was looking out at the lake, they didn’t seem to matter very much.
My mother went to this same camp for one summer, when she was fifteen, and for all the years that I went to camp, she came at the end of the summer and stayed for a week of family camp, where old campers and their families came back to see how very little had changed. When my mother was there, they still bathed in the lake, but other than the addition of showers, she could find nothing different.

A few years ago I had a dream about a garden that my family and friends had made for me. The garden was a circle cut into four quarters. Sara made one quarter into a prairie with tall grasses and wildflowers. Another friend made one quarter into a southern Utah red rock desert, with juniper and piñon pine. My grandmother made a third quarter into an English garden, with a crumbling stone wall with roses running over it. And the last quarter my mother made into a little piece of Maine, with granite boulders and white pine and hemlock and birch. It is, I think, the loveliest dream I have ever had, but it seems notable to me that none of the people who made the garden were in the dream. I knew they had made it and put it there for me, but the dream was just about the garden itself, and that was enough.

It took me a long time to realize that landscape was the most important thing in the world to me. The landscapes of the garden are only partly real — I have been to Maine and to southern Utah, and they look, in part, much as my dream garden did. The English garden comes from Beatrix Potter and The Secret Garden; I have never been to England myself. And though I grew up in Iowa, I grew up by corn and soybean fields, and in cities and towns. There are prairie restoration projects in Iowa, but there is no more original prairie: my image of that part of the garden comes entirely from Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It sounds ungrateful to say that the land is more important than the people, but for me it seems to be true. The people are important, of course. But when Carole King sings “I always wanted a real home with flowers on the windowsill/But if you want to live in New York City, honey you know I will,” I can’t really get behind her. I love and want people in my life, but I need land. I need the dear muddy earth, or the dear dry dust. I need space, and I need to be able to see the sun set. I learned that, or much of it, I am sure, at camp, but it took me a long time to understand it.

May 07

Saturday Night Thought

From last night, posted tonight. I thought I might expand upon it, but no, this is all there is:

Every now and then, it dawns on me that Garrison Keillor is going to die, and that I will then have to live the rest of my life without Prairie Home Companion. (I have similar feelings about Gary Trudeau and Doonesbury, but they’re not quite as intense, probably because my acquaintance with them is a decade shorter–I started reading Doonesbury in grade school; PHC I probably heard in utero.)

That Trudeau’s show is not as good as it once was–that it could never be as good as “Snow Home” was when I perhaps four (if, in fact, I heard it live–I could swear that I did, on the old radio that I moved to my office at my first job, on which, for reasons that seem baffling even now, I listened while at said job to all of the Clinton impeachment hearings)–is of little matter. It may, I suppose, make it easier to say goodbye in the end, but I doubt it.