The Fog of Rural Virginia

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Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM via Flickr

I didn’t see the sign that would have said “Welcome to Virginia” accompanied by what I assume is still the “Virginia is for lovers” tag line. All I saw along busy Interstate 77, through the pouring rain and looming fog, were some impressive hills that caused our fragile little compact car to wince as its engine revved in search of some non-existent muscle.  I was hoping to see the sign as an indicator of progress, as we passed hour number 7 on what should have been an 8 hour drive, but the large dark figures that began to line the road were sign enough: we’ve arrived in Appalachia, sacred region of culture, lore, and some crazy beautiful nature. Of course as far as the highway is concerned, it’s just more asphalt with slightly better scenery for the next 6 hours.

And so it was, that the day before Christmas eve a little car with New Jersey plates struggled its way to a beautiful town called Luray, Virginia. To visit friends, rest, but also to get a quick glimpse of what life is like there; another world that seems cut off from most everything, at least in my head.

Arriving in late evening in a rural American town in the mountains of Virginia, what you get is an extremely silent and still atmosphere. The craziest thing one can see are the winding roads and the tasteful Christmas lights decorating main street. Shops seemed to have closed hours ago, while the windows of closed restaurants still reveal some condensation from customers who were very recently enjoying a meal. Luray is sleepy at night, but there are plenty of signs that when the world wakes up tomorrow, this place will be busy.

photo by Rory Finneren via Flickr
photo by Rory Finneren via Flickr

There is nothing quite like waking up in a perfectly silent farm house made of stone and wood surrounded by nature and little else. Not too surprisingly, next to the bed of this fantastic bnb, there is one of those artificial noise machines so you can listen to the wind or some soothing white noise, if silence is too off-putting to fall asleep to.  Looking outside I see the vast green of forrest and fields that last night were nothing but shadows around my headlights. Scanning the horizon I see a house or two and wonder if those far away neighbors wake up the same way every day. Or maybe they just curse life and get on with it.

Sadly there is only time for oatmeal, tea, a quick walk around the building to listen to the rustling of leaves in the wind, water from a nearby stream, a cow or two somewhere nearby. We take it all in as quickly as possible, as the highway is a-callin’ and Christmas in New Jersey waits for no man (or woman). Driving past the farm houses, some in excellent condition, many abandoned, I can’t help wonder what happened to those people. Did they move away in search of more profitable work? Did they die in their now dilapidated homes, no one to take over and fix things up. How many family lines ended here?  – This was not surprisingly  followed by another typical line of thinking: what would it be like to take up residence here? Would a fool like me feel at home making a life next to Shenandoah National Park? Would every day be interesting and rewarding in some way? Wait, what am I talking about.. isn’t the grass always greener somewhere else? Don’t we typically trade good and bad aspects in one particular place for a set of mixed circumstances elsewhere? Is this part of being human, in the end? Few of these questions will ever get an answer. They are mostly just sparks in an over active imagination. But when you spend even only a few hours surrounded by such peace and beauty… sparks sure do fly.

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You Can Never Go Home

As I run around New Jersey for a few weeks, a quote from the 2004 film “Garden State” keeps running through my head:

“You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of a sudden even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone.”

1693389_3e95cdd45d_oThe character who said it, Andrew Largeman, is a New Jersean living in California who has come home due to a death in the family. A struggling actor in Los Angeles, he had not come back to New Jersey for several years, and during that time, much had changed including the house where he grew up.

It is such a familiar topic that it is probably very easy to strike a chord with people who have felt similar. You grew up in a place that you still refer to as home, although that place that you knew, is no longer what it was. Some never look back and therefore that place remains in tact but only as an idea that appears in dreams or thoughts. Others, like myself, go back to see what has changed, even try to hit up the old familiar places that were part of that era when home was home. Sometimes these visits serve to satisfy that need for nostalgia and to forget that time has passed and life is different now. Other times it is a big flop, leaving a deeper feeling of being in the wrong place and the wrong time. That undeniable feeling that the place you call home is in fact not home anymore.

Does it matter? Is something lost if the feeling of home is lost? Is this a long resolved topic that people have by and large agreed is perfectly natural and not important? Probably. There often isn’t time enough for people to run around trying to recapture the past. We leave that to hollywood and the occasional clever website.

There’s a second part to Largeman’s quote:

“Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”

At some point over the last few years, I realized that is part of what I’ve been busy doing. Creating my home. That it happens to be across an ocean and in a different culture is besides the point. For me, home in the present day wasn’t just something that appeared out of thin air, it took work. It took building. It is a process that continues. It is a process that I enjoy very much.

As for New Jersey, I’m always happy to be back among my fellow people who miss the same imaginary place (and bygone era).

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Life as a News Feed

The woman next to me is frantically scrolling down her newsfeed as more passengers put their baggage in the overhead and find their seats. As she scrolls I see the French flags, the Eiffel Tower images, and the occasional “Im ok” update. Crammed into the seatback pocket in front of her is a copy of the French newspaper, with extraordinarily large font describing the horror of last night. As the pre-recorded safety video plays, she continues to scroll, she seems unable and unwilling to stop. When the crew finally announce to switch off phones, she grabs the newspaper and starts flipping through the multiple pages with stories of carnage, again like she is searching for something specific.

7397601176_0bbe4420c1_zUpon arrival in Stockholm, every TV screen has people staring at it as images of Paris run in loop. The look on their faces seems similar to the woman on the plane. They can’t look away. Like some key piece of information is coming up, like watching the programming is an essential task they must perform in the aftermath of mass murder in a place that everyone believes they are connected to. “I’ve walked there.” “I had a drink in a cafe next door”. “I know a guy who lives on that street.” The methods of triangulation and inserting oneself into a situation are many and sometimes baffling.

From the warm safety of a welcoming home I look at Twitter, Facebook, and the occasional update from the news app on my phone. New statements keep appearing. More of those French Flag profile photos that for some reason annoy me. I don’t see value in these acts and these statements. But of course, this isn’t about what I see, people feel the need to do these things, so they do them, why should I be annoyed?  All day long people make big statements, emotional observations and argue about what has been done, what should be done, who’s at fault.. there is no end to what is being argued. Dumb people. Intelligent people. Those somewhere in between. They’re all talking. Making comments, writing poignant articles with bits of evidence and lots of attempts at convincing you of that their message really sums up the problem or the event itself.

What are we looking for with all this? Answers I suppose. We want reasons for things. We want to show others that we understand. We want control over our world. There’s nothing strange about that, I want control over many aspects of my own daily life. I incorporate all kinds of strategies and tools to gain as much control as possible over time and human reactions to my activities. I try this even though in the end I do not have as much control as I think I have.

5175576642_24a5470021_zAnother day goes by. News of the escalation of “war” in Syria. Again social media and news apps make noise. Something significant is happening, this could lead to some big change. People get emotional and excited or maybe agitated. Lots of ideas about what should happen next. Lots of criticisms, again and again.” This time it is different.” “Those people there, these people here, they didn’t die in vain,” people will insist.

But really, haven’t we seen this before? Isn’t everything just a repeat or a variation on the mistakes and misdeeds that have happened previously? rewind a year, 5 years, 25 years, 100 years, it seems to me people die in vain everywhere everyday. Humans who survive occasionally try and tell the story another way. Not unlike the writing of a text like this one; I’m no different than everyone else, especially once I push the publish button. I’m foolish. I’m emotional. But, I’m looking at what is happening and how we react to it all, and I want out. There is something broken about the whole thing. But the process just keeps repeating itself. And it is too hard or abstract of an idea to stop the cycle and be critical of our own actions. Too hard to see how complex the world is and our individual roles in making it that way. Life has become a news feed, filled with routine -as well as random- human noises. Or perhaps it was that way all along, so there’s nothing to read here.

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What Remains of You

We moved into a new apartment last month, my partner and I, in a beautiful and lively neighborhood of Amsterdam. Strangely enough on our second day in the house, as we unpacked the massive pile of boxes, a loud discussion burst out in front of our building, which included a good amount of crying by at least one female. When I looked outside to see the source of the noise, two police cars had pulled up and officers slowly put on blue surgical gloves as they tried to calm down the young woman. They seemed in no hurry to enter the building, but when they finally did I could hear their footsteps just above my head. Within minutes they thumped down the stairs and were back outside. More civilians arrived, these men and women would also join the vigil outside. An hour or two went by. A city medical examiner arrived, solemnly greeted the people, and continued up the stairs, again the action going on just above our bedroom. Hours later, in the middle of the night, a large funeral car with a team of two formally dressed individuals is outside. I’m awoken from my brief sleep to the sound of thunderous footsteps and struggling in the narrow Dutch stairwell. I peer through the keyhole just as large objects thump against the door. 3 or 4 men are  struggling with a human body. The final piece of the story, the upstairs neighbor had passed away in his own bed.

19499706524_df2d03b34c_zFor the next week(s) as family members arrived and I listened to the faint sounds of suffering and commiserating, those famous topics of death and how quickly life can change or even end rattled around in my over active brain. Here’s a man who lived alone, older but not old, loved by friends and family, yet isolated in his home in many ways. It is a common reality, in both cities and rural areas. It happens.

Twice a week in this neighborhood they have large garbage night. All month, twice a week, I’ve watched as pieces of a man’s life are painstakingly carried out to the garbage pickup spot. Trash bags. Bits of furniture. Worn carpets. “Unfortunately, my father was a hoarder,” one of his children tells me as she passes me in the stairwell carrying more trash bags. I recognize her as the daughter who stood outside all those hours when the discovery was made. She tries to laugh about it, but the sorrow and pain leaks out as she gives up on a smile.

Each night after the trash is put out, things get quiet upstairs, as family members go home. Then another kind of ritual begins, they come by car, scooter, truck, bike and on foot, to sort through the garbage pile. These are the scavengers, professionals, amateurs, random passer-by’s that see these things and decide to take them home. I watch from my window as they each show up. They scour the piles, feeling the bags, finding sets of things, occasionally accidentally dropping something that makes an attention grabbing crash. Sometimes there are 4 people surrounding the pile yet no one looks at each other, they focus on the pile and the possibility of finding what is treasure to them. By morning there are mostly only scraps and shards of broken things left. Pieces of what were once a person’s life, are sorted and transported all over the city.

It has been one month since the death of the man upstairs. A truck came to take away whatever was deemed of value for the family. His children have worked themselves to exhaustion cleaning the place. There is no more noise upstairs. Soon the landlord will come and paint, renew, whatever is needed to prepare the place for new people. Within a month new human(s) will live their lives upstairs from me. Occasionally they might throw out a large piece of furniture. A scavenger will have it loaded into a van within minutes. Life just goes on.

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