Archive

Tag Archives: personal history

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Near Pendleton, Ore.

There are books that give us pleasure in the reading, books that inform us, books we are required to read, and there are books that become so internalized, they essentially shape the course of our lives. We can probably all name such books for ourselves. I made a list, maybe 15 years ago, in a moment of quo vadis self reflection, of those books that have most shaped who I am. I stopped listing after 50 books. Since I made the list, I could add several more; after all, I keep reading.

Pageant of Life

Pageant of Life

Of course, it is the earliest reading that had the most influence — as the twig is bent, so the tree inclines. Even the best of the more recent books cannot have influenced me even a percentage of how much I was shaped by, say, the Life magazine book, The World We Live In, which my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, and which left me wide-eyed at the wonder and diversity of nature  — volcanoes, blue whales, dinosaurs, jellyfish, rainforests, barchan sand dunes. I wear the badge of that book in my deepest heart’s core. It is the holy of holies.

But what caught my attention as I reread my old list, was that it continued to include lists of other things that shaped who I have become: music that influenced my developing psyche; art (that I saw in person, not just in books); movies; TV shows; — and last on the list of lists —  landscapes.

We don’t often think of how deeply landscape affects us, guides the direction of our lives — but how different might be the novels written by Fenimore Cooper or Washington Irving, or Mark Twain if those authors had lived elsewhere and seen different rivers, different mountains, different forests. I think of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is practically a landscape — a cityscape — spread into lines of type.

Back Bay, Va.

Back Bay, Va.

Joyce had Dublin; Thomas Wolfe had Asheville, N.C., where my wife and I now live. Recently, I opened the first pages of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and read his description of Oliver Gant’s trip to western North Carolina. At one point, he describes a trip up the face of the Blue Ridge from “Old Stockade” to “Altamont” — thinly disguised versions of Old Fort and Asheville —  and as I read it, I knew that landscape — I knew that gravel road; I’ve driven it myself just last month. It’s still gravel and few cars venture it as it wanders and loops through the trees and snakes up the mountain. The interstate long ago made the trip faster and easier. But freeways are boring. As the old road loops and hairpins its way, you can frequently spy the railroad line as it winds its way uphill. That railroad was just being built as Wolfe wrote about it but even now, it  passes just under the hill where I live, and hear the locomotive whistle blow every night. It is uncanny to read about something fictionalized that you know as real.

But, in a sense, all the landscapes that are buried in the psyche are fictionalized: They have been transformed from mere fact into meaning. They are now metaphor and their existence takes on a reality that is imaginative rather than quotidian. It is imprinted as deeply as the smells of childhood, a mother’s kisses, the woodgrain of the school desk scratched with initials and scribbles.

Hudson River, West Point

Hudson River, West Point

Dunderberg

Dunderberg

My own internal landscape begins as I do, in New Jersey and New York, with the Hudson River running through it and the Catskills bumping one bank and the Taconics the other. The automobile drive around the dizzying Dunderberg north of Tomkins Bay was a white-knuckle ride when I was young, the three-lane highway incised into the edge of the cliff. My father hated that part of the drive; we kids loved it. The “mothball fleet” of rusting liberty ships off Jones Point was a living link to the war my father had returned from only a few years before. There was Bear Mountain, with its ski jump and the suspension bridge over the Hudson; there was Seven Lakes Drive through Harriman State Park, all trees and granite; there was the Red Apple Rest and its billboards on the highway.Bear Mountain Bridge for blog copy

I don’t know why, but the suburban life I lived in Bergen County barely registered as landscape. The housing developments and county roads never embossed themselves on my synapses in any significant way. But the summer vacation trips we took up the Hudson to Newburgh, NY, and to the “bungalow” that was my father’s family summer cottage in West Park burned themselves deeply into my awareness of the world. The Hudson River was the aorta that pumped the lifeblood of my awareness of the larger world.

Deep River, NC

Deep River, NC

So, when I moved to North Carolina and college, I was amused at the Tar River or the Deep River. They weren’t rivers. The Hudson was a river. Guilford County’s Deep River was a wet gully. I could have jumped across it.

I have lived many places, and in many landscapes, but they haven’t all dug wormholes into my psyche. I’ve traveled to every continental state of the union — most several times. When Hank Snow sings, “I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere,” I can honestly say that I have been to the places he names in the song: “Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond Du Lac … Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravellburg, Colorado, Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, El Dorado, Larrimore, Atmore, Haverstraw” … the song goes on.

And all those places have landscapes that accompany them, the way a song accompanies each Fred Astaire dance number. They are there in the memory. But not all of them have transformed from geography to mythology. There are moments in life when you are particularly open, when your very skin seems adhesive to experience. It is like that when you are a child, but it also happens when you go through some life altering change, a first divorce, or a move across country, a close call, the birth of a child, or a new job. The rind of the psyche gets pulped, and becomes a place for a mythic sense of life to become rooted.

At vulnerable moments in the course of living, the world takes on an extra glow, a mythic noumenon and becomes fixed in the synapses as something larger than itself. The landscape thus internalized becomes an emotional nexus, a place where complex thoughts and feelings can be induced merely by seeing an image of that landscape, or reading an evocative description, perhaps even hearing a certain piece of music.

Mendocino County, Calif.

Mendocino County, Calif.

And so, these landscapes can influence the way you see the world. If you live by the river, you become Twain, if you live by the sea, you become Sarah Orne Jewett, if you live in Manhattan, you become Woody Allen — and all you write takes on the world view the land provides. Think of Faulkner and the red clay, of Hemingway and Michigan, of Henry Miller and Brooklyn (I know Paris comes first to mind, but it is the Brooklyn of the Rosy Crucifixion where you see the real Miller world view).

And so, when a seven-year relationship was breaking down in suspicion and acrimony, we took a trip up through Pennsylvania and the Delaware River to try to make things right. The heart was a sodden wet rag, and one chill fall morning at Port Jervis, the sun rose over a field by a railroad roundhouse that was choked with more wildflowers than I have ever seen before: yarrow, aster, ironweed, joe pye weed, mullein, sunflower, black-eyed susan, queen-anne’s lace. It burned into me, and is still there as a kind of metaphor for the infinite sadness of paradise.

Watauga County, NC

Watauga County, NC

Years later, when I first came to live with the woman who has been my wife for the past 30 years, our house was on a ridge overlooking the New River in the Blue Ridge, and the landscape of rolling mountains and hills, divided between pastures and forest, coves and hollows, whitewashed churches and unpainted barns, took on that numinous glow. It is why we have moved back to the mountains, although the same landscape has now quieted down into comfortable daily life.

Hatteras

Hatteras

When I first entered college, and the intellectual world gaped open for me, I traveled several times with my friend Alexander to the Outer Banks. The sea oats and dunes, the long beach, Hatteras point — climbing illegally to the top of the lighthouse at night under a blanket of stars, feeling the steady wind on my cheeks, the smell of salt in the air — so that coming back to the dorm and  listening to Debussy’s La Mer on the tiny Sears Silvertone portable phonograph, sealed the experience into the brain like a mordant fixes dye in a fabric.

In the years I was unemployed and nearly homeless, I traveled back to New Jersey with my brother for Christmas. On the way back South, we drove through West Virginia, where he had friends, and we spent New Years Day on the top of a mountain. Before dawn, I woke and dressed and went out into the biting cold, where the grass was brittle with frost and my breath clouded in front of me and I surveyed the Cumberland Plateau, bumpy with mountains, spread out to the horizon. I felt lost and alone in all that frozen landscape.

Tsegi Canyon, Ariz.

Tsegi Canyon, Ariz.

The opposite emotions were engaged the first time my wife and I drove out West, in 1980, and the first time we saw buttes and mesas. The land seemed even more expansive than the West Virginia mountains, but they seemed to offer unlimited potential. The air was clear; you could see mountain ranges a hundred miles away. Over the quarter-century we lived in the West, there were many such landscapes printed on my psyche, from Christmas in the snow in Walpi, on First Mesa, spent with a Hopi family; to driving across the Escalante National Monument alone; to spending the night camping north of the Grand Canyon in a forsaken part of the Arizona Strip, one of the least populated plots of land in the country.

Landscape functions not merely as a stage set, a backdrop of other memorable occurrences, but for themselves alone, as metaphor, as an image of the inside state of one’s emotions and mind. It can be as if the landscape were not injected into your mind through your eyes, but rather, projected outward upon existence from the deepest recesses of your mind. If you were to enter my skull and photograph what you found, it would be landscape.

Big Bend NP, Texas

Big Bend NP, Texas

From my list, other landscapes you will find inside my head include the Olympic Mountains in Washington; Schoodic Point in Maine; Big Bend National Park in Texas; the sea-swell grasslands of eastern Montana that I rode past on the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle; driving by night through the Big Sur in California; and Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., which I have circumambulated half a dozen times.

I do not know if it is rare — I have not asked many people — but many of the dreams I manage to remember as I wake up, are dreams consisting purely of landscape, often highly imaginary, exaggerated like the Andes of Frederick Church. It is the space in these dreams that seems to carry meaning, the emptiness from the spot where I stand to the thing I see before me: In between is air, and the air has shape and meaning.

Ansel Adams, Clearing Storm, Yosemite

Ansel Adams, Clearing Storm, Yosemite

The best landscape painting and photography functions not as a record of the topography, but rather as an image of the interior state, vast and romantic, like Ansel Adams’ Yosemite in a winter storm, or Thomas Cole’s Crawford Notch. O blow you cataracts and hurricanoes, in the scumble of Turner, or cooly glow on the horizon, like the misty suns of Claude Lorrain, or the chessboard order of Canaletto.

 

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch

 

Skull Island

Skull Island

When I was very young, perhaps 6 or 7, I first watched King Kong on TV, and what has stuck from then to now is the steamy, vine-clogged, rocky-cliffed landscape of Skull Island. That skull is mine, seen from the inside out.

If you want to shake the world out and make it larger again, get up at 3 in the morning and drive across the flatness of Indiana and Illinois. It is dark, the stars are thick as the July humidity. And the world seems quiet, empty and stretched once more to full size.

The sky grows upward as the stars populate it, lightyears away. Not only is the earth big, but you can see that you are a pebble at the bottom of a very deep universe.

You drive alone for miles and the only thing you see is distant headlights, like fireflies, flitting along the horizon line that shows up as the boundary between two different shades of black.

One set of headlights gets closer. You recognize a kindred spirit, someone else is driving in the lonely, vacant night. You wait a very long time for the lights to draw close. They are still miles away.

As the car gets nearer and dims its headlights — that salute of recognition in the dark — you see that it is the God of the Nighttime Highway, whose eyes are headlights and whose halogen gaze keeps the world from disappearing when everyone else is asleep.

And he passes and you drop once more into the large darkness.

Click on any image to enlarge

Baldwin County, Ala.

Baldwin County, Ala.

three brothers 1978Some years ago, I began writing an autobiography. Don’t worry, you’ll never have to read it.

I didn’t begin it with any thought of publication. I may have worked at a zoo and lived in a coal bin, but my life is not so interesting or important that anyone else should be forced to know about it.

It began with a deal with my two brothers: I’ll write my life if you’ll write yours.

I realized that I didn’t know the details of their lives. We’ve always been close enough that I’ve known the basic direction of their lives, but from the point I left for college 40 years ago, the details became fuzzy. And it is the details that add up to create a personality.

So, I tasked them to write down the major points of their lives so we might better know each other: who their girlfriends were, what jobs they had, what books were important to them.

In the process, I thought, we might also get a different point of view on the shared episodes of our lives in childhood. Perhaps what I thought of as roughhousing, my younger brothers might have thought of as terrorism. Perhaps an uncle I thought hilarious, they might have found tedious.

But writing it has been one of the most engrossing tasks I have ever set myself.

I realize now, too, that this task really began when I visited my aging parents and began asking them all those questions that too many people ask only after their parents are dead. I recorded their recollections on my laptop and wrote up a piece of oral history to send to my brothers. It included family trees for both sides of the family, memories my mother had of her childhood and that my father had of World War II in Europe.Boys April 1956

It was a revelation: Relatives that had been vaporous ghosts in my own memory were brought back to life and their interrelationships made clear.

I came to know my parents much better and began to admire things in them that had been previously obscured by what I had taken to be their faults.

Perhaps, I reasoned, this same sort of thing could be undertaken amongst us brothers.

“Something like 20 pages,” I told them, “It shouldn’t be too hard.”

Neither of my brothers is a writer by trade, as I am. I didn’t want to make it too daunting for them.

But when I began writing my own version, I found that 20 pages was a mere sneeze.

I have now written about 250 pages and haven’t even gotten to the moment when I met my wife. The first 50 pages only get me through high school.

It turns out that writing one’s memoirs is an endless unfolding of  memory. Each tiny recollection is a door that opens into rooms with more doors. And each of these doors open on yet more. A memory, it turns out, is only an iceberg’s tip. Perhaps you recall a family picnic, but as you write about it, you discover you remember the way your mother made a certain sandwich, which connects, more surely than any internet link, with the larger issues of her cooking and the part food played in our family dynamics.Jack in Fla

We are each one of us a Proust waiting to unlock our own brains.

It is astonishing what is buried in the synapses, unused for decades, but still there for downloading.

The other lesson of writing an autobiography is to see the shape of one’s life unfold: What had seemed a jumble of unrelated episodes takes a narrative form and you discover that what you did as a 5-year-old flows with the certainty of a great river into what you do as a 50-year-old. It is all of a piece; the child is indeed father to the man.

It has been a while since I continued writing it: My brothers never took up the challenge. Now, one of them has died; I’ll never learn about his life. The other brother has more important things to do than write his autobiography. My version sits in my harddrive, worked over and rewritten several times, unread by anyone but me. The fervor for self-expression has died down like last week’s campfire.

One of the things that has dampened my enthusiasm is that as I’ve gotten to be an old man, I recognize how useless it is for anyone else to know about my life. It is one of the futilities of age that you recognize how much you have learned over six decades of life, and how little it helps the younger generation, who are feverishly intent on committing all the same mistakes you made, and are deaf to any guidance you may offer. This should be no surprise: I didn’t listen to my elders when I was young.

Perhaps one day, my granddaughters will want to read about their grandfather. I certainly wish I could have talked to mine, to find out more about the long line of people that led up to my entrance on the stage. But when I was young, I had better things to do. It wasn’t until after my grandfathers were both long dead that the wish came upon me to have asked them important questions only they could have answered.Craig in Fla 2

So, for whom am I writing these notes? Clearly, for myself. One doesn’t start an autobiography for the benefit of readers, but for the benefit of oneself, to find and delineate the patterns found in the weave, to discover or create the plot that conveys meaning to the life lived. We have a sense of ourselves not merely through our five senses, but through the remembered narrative we have created of our transport through this single, unexpectedly short lifetime. Pulling the memories out of the doors behind doors behind doors of our synapses gives us the matter for this novel we are writing by getting up each morning.

So, my autobiography is unfinished; it may remain so. I learned what I needed by the doing — I sifted through the first 35 years of my life to find the turns and bends that led me to this now. The subsequent 33 years have taken their own shape through the living. The only person I would wish to share them with has no need of my notes: She lived those years with me.

I would, though, love to read her version of those years. Perhaps I will attempt to persuade her to write her autobiography. It would be enlightening to compare notes.

moviola 1

We travel in time as much as in space.

And just as there are moments when you stand on the top of a rise and see grand vistas and the lay of the land suddenly becomes clear, there are moments when you climb up out of the hollow of local time and the years spread out in front of you as one vast temporal landscape.

I had such an experience this summer in New Jersey.

I was born and raised in the Garden State in several communities between the Hackensack and Hudson rivers. I left for college and have rarely been back in the intervening quarter century — family and friends had all died or moved away.Old Tappan 2

But on this trip my wife and I passed through Bergen County and managed to stop by some places I knew well as a boy.

Now I’m not about to wax nostalgic. I abhor nostalgia; it is a kind of morticians’ wax applied to the dead face of the past, distorting everything we once knew. Times were not better then and never were.

But things clearly have changed.lein's grove

The first change is purely psychological: Everything has shrunk. The landscape that was so sprawling to my boy’s eyes is now condensed to a few tight city blocks. What seemed like an expedition is now walking distance. Skyscrapers are now bungalows.

Many people have experienced a similar sensation.

But the second change is more profound: The snapshot of New Jersey in my brain has remained static while time has bounded forward, so that when I revisit Teaneck or Old Tappan, I’m seeing what is in effect time-lapse photography: All the changes are accelerated so that what has moved invisibly day to day is now telescoped into a rush.

It isn’t just that there is more development. Bergen County has for a long time been the very model of suburbia; there are tract homes everywhere and more spring up every day. But nature has somehow kept up with the construction: Housing developments that were raw muddy wounds 30 years ago are now green and shaded under sprawling trees. For all the decay of time, there is a matching fecundity.

And when a quarter century exists between frames in your movie, it is a small step to move back yet another quarter century and then another, so that the history you learned in school no longer sits inkbound on the page of a book but begins to breathe as another scene in the movie you are a small part of.eisenstein

So you can slide the film back and forth in your mental Moviola only a dozen equal frames and you are in the era of Peter Stuyvesant and Dutch colonialization. It’s a blip from now to 1655 on the time line.

Frederick Haring HouseThe Old Tappan I grew up in was dotted with farms and old stone houses, built during the Dutch era. The houses are thick-walled and covered in lichen, moss and ivy; they are overarched by spreading oaks. They have, as it is said, settled.

Such houses were constructed of brown sandstone quarried by slaves.

It isn’t often remembered that slaves are a part of New Jersey’s history: In pre-Revolutionary times a settler was given 175 acres of land for every slave he imported. By 1737, slaves accounted for 8.4 percent of Jersey’s population.

Slave insurrections — in Hackensack, Raritan and Elizabeth, among other places — were a continual occurrence and citizens felt themselves stuck with the damnable institution. In 1772, a law was proposed ”obliging owners of the slaves to send them all back to Africa at their own expense.”

The law came to naught, but by that time free labor began to replace slavery and indenture.

I mention all this because when my boyhood home was built in 1956 in Old Tappan in northern New Jersey, the excavation turned up the stone foundation of slave quarters. It had been buried in woods for centuries and was now opened up to the sun for the first time.

It seemed little more than a curiosity then, and it was soon buried once more under the landscaping in our back yard. Its reawakening was brief.

Old Tappan 4The house has had two or three owners since I lived in it. I doubt that any of them knew what was buried under the Zoysia grass. But I thought of it again as I visited on vacation and saw how much the old house had changed: new paint, grown-up trees that were once bushes, a new bridge over the creek that cut through the property.

You play the film through the Moviola: The whole of northern New Jersey was once covered by a forest of oak and hickory. That was cut down for agriculture; the slave quarters behind my childhood home was evidence of that. But the fields grew once more into trees and were once more cut down to build the house.

The field next to the house was still pastureland when I was a boy. Now, it is dense with willows, birch and maple, on its way once more to growing oaks. If I look into its future, I can see more housing.

Time is fierce; it consumes the world.