Virginia always takes me by surprise.
I’ll be rearranging my NetFlix queue or doing some other essential but non-essential thing - cooking, dusting, or paying bills - and a green flash of Virginia darts in.
The blue, hazy vistas. The open high mountain pastures. Fat yellow, black and white striped monarch butterfly caterpillars munching on milk weed. White two-story farmhouses with green roofs and wrap-around porches. The images elbow each other for room in my mind.
I stop, pull back from whatever I'm doing, and let it all flow over me. I invite in those ancient folded Appalachian ridges that stretch from Newfoundland to Alabama and pull up little slices of Virginia luck.
Pale pink spring cherry blossom petals blanketing the ground, up to my ankles.
A sign in the window of the H&H Cash Store in Monterey, next to a poster for maple syrup and buckwheat flour: If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.
The August heat hammering down any thought of moving quickly.
Thousands of Arbogasts in the wide Shenandoah Valley and the steeps and flats of Highland County.
Tiny Willie’s Pit BBQ hole-in-the-wall BBQ in Staunton that’s not there anymore.
And then, a few days later on Tuesday, April 26 at 7 p.m., after I have checked in and found my long-lusted-after seat in a rocking chair on the second story porch at the Highland Inn in Monterey, high up in the "little Switzerland" of Virginia, I am lucky enough to do a reading at the public library.
It was in Highland County that I began to understand that in the debris of Jim’s death was a remarkable gift, really a rare chance to remake myself --the core of Leave the Dogs at Home’s story:
Here's an excerpt:
White picket fences announced McDowell, which was really just a few houses along the road. It was easy to find the old house—it was the only brick house in town. It was a Hull family house built in the 1800s that had served as a Stonewall Jackson headquarters, a Civil War hospital, a hotel, a stagecoach stop, and now a museum.
I left the girls in the Element under a lone tree several blocks away, every possible window open, water dish filled to the brim, and calculated I had an hour before the sun moved from behind the tree to beat down on them. A stray breeze moved through the thick air. Maybe it was slightly less hot here.
My elderly cousin was waiting for me upstairs at a heavy wooden table in a room lined with genealogy books. The slight scent of mildew tickled my nose. An air conditioner cranked noisily in the window.
My shorts and T-shirt seemed disrespectful next to his white pressed shirt and brown suit and tie. He listened to me recite my lineage, nodding his head at each generation. Elizabeth and Michael. Elisabeth and David. Katherine and Enos. Isabele and Sanford. Cordelia and Enos. Pearl and Straud. Maxine and Elmore.
“Yes, I know your family,” he said. “And I know where the old house is.”
I unfolded a map and scooted it across to him. He ran his thin, smooth fingers over the web of back roads.
“The old house is here,” he said, tapping at the map with his index finger. “In the field behind a newer house. As you drive around this curve you can just see it. It’s before the road turns to gravel and goes up the mountain. It was in Arbogast hands until a few years ago, but they had to sell.”
Three hours later I pulled the truck over onto a small grassy shoulder in the curve of road next to a flock of sheep, the dogs whining to chase the herd. I thought this spot might be where my cousin had pointed to on the map. There was an old house set back far away. I couldn’t really see. The air undulated in the broiling sun.
And then it hit me. It didn’t matter if this was the house or not. What mattered was how Michael had broken free from the restraints and traditions of the old ways to find a new way in a new land. He had left the old wars and took on new ones. While others cried and whined over being duped by the Soul Traders, he served his time and made his dream happen.
Who knows what misery and horror he might have seen, being the only survivor of his German family, who may have been wasted by typhoid fever or mowed down in war. But Michael built a better life on the disaster of their deaths. As surely as he mourned them, he lived proudly and made Arbogast a name that rings with honor across the Shenandoah Valley.
My Jim and career disasters seemed so shallow in comparison and my bleak grief over the loss of the former me so indulgent. But one thing was for sure: my life was getting better. I wasn’t headed for just a different life, but a better one and a better me. One that would not be here if Jim were alive. And it was time to be grateful and unabashed about living it.
This is verboten thinking. Widows and left-behind lovers are never supposed to say this.
We’re supposed to say that our relationships and marriages were perfect. You were crazy in love. It’s like half of you is gone, He was everything to me. Once your main squeeze kicks the bucket, the union, no matter how complicated or imperfect, becomes sacrosanct. The dead one golden and wonderful, the one left behind without a reason to go on. All the bad times must fall away, and only the good times can remain.
We are allowed to stumble onward, bravely. We are allowed to heal and learn to enjoy life again. We are allowed to love again. But we are not supposed admit that life is better after a lover’s death.
I needed to write about this, but I didn’t want to. People would think it was cathartic, therapy writing, a cleansing. A way for me to process my emotions. But I was doing just fine processing. I didn’t even think I was forging new ground. All I was doing was walking a path walked by many but unspoken of, and these important things needed to be said out loud.
It’s not that I was glad that Jim was dead, but he was. And because of the chaos of his death I had a chance to break out of my crystallized and hardened patterns of predictability, to crack the calcified static of my life. In the rubble of Jim’s illness and death, I had a chance to walk into the next stage of my life with a new perspective. Some people never have, or take, this chance; instead they become frozen into who they are, what they think, how they act.”
Winter is slipping away, and it hasn’t even really started yet. I can feel it. Before you know it, those daffodils will be popping up and courting me, calling me outside, and I will not be ready.
I love winter. But not why you might think.
Yes, the raspberry canes turn purple, and the browns and grays of the landscape are as subtle and layered as a finely turned Stanley Kunitz poem.
Yes, the sharp clarity of air inhaled clears the viruses and muck of summer from my brain.
Yes, the night stars are as crisp as jewels in the dark sky.
Yes the flannel sheets are cozy, the wood fires are toasty, and the stews are satisfyingly tribal.
But it's the interiors of winter that I love. That's where the warm and broad luscious world of words lives. Cold, sleet, ice, dreary? I never really notice once I let myself go. And I always want to let go before I can.
The yearn for an unbroken fall forward into all the words I can’t get to when I’m digging in the garden or putting up jars of lime blueberry jam is palpable.
It's an impossible situation. I can never get to all the words in any winter (they are so short!) and each winter's already too big allotment of words always expands beyond all expectations as ideas spring off into wild directions, so every spring starts with me undone. Over the summer, words pile up - books unread, New Yorkers and Harper's stuffed and stacked in corners, articles bookmarked in my browser.
The descent into words isn't just a day or two here and there. Not just a few hours. It's a whole indulgent, obsessive, unaware-of-the-world-around-me stretch that is never long enough.
I’m mid-fall right now, a free, wide-armed collapse into the ideas of others and the notions that burst out of my fingers dancing in response across the keyboard. But I stay in mid-fall for so long. Not really totally immersed, and it pains me.
Already November has evaporated. Okay, it was a very mild November, and I was outside. But today was a chilly December 1. And even though it was a disciplined day with some decent progress on my novel and a couple lovely and brain shifting dips into the worlds of Edward O. Wilson and Alexander James Thom, and some good reading over lunch, the day was still taken by half with the clamor of practicalities.
Bake bread . . . do yoga . . . finish finances and put away papers . . . record movies for Cabo vacation . . . make plans to go the art bazaar at the UU church on Friday . . . empty the dishwasher . . .
And I can see more coming right at me. A swelling barrel-wave of fall stoppers: the making of truffles to send off in Christmas packages, trips to the post office, not the mention the holiday jerky and cherry chocolates or the wrapping of presents and general partying. Things I love.
So, I can never quite complete the immersive fall that I need - the time when no chores or complicated recipes or Facebook scanning are of any interest, and everywhere are only the cascades and eddies of words and the explosions of ideas - until after the New Year.
And then I’ve only got about two months (taking a week off to laze on the beach in Cabo) to do what is really a year’s worth of study and writing before the light starts to change and those damned crocus nod their lovely heads.
Tomorrow the balance will shift; it has to, because winter is almost over already.
I’ve been a really good girl this week. It might seem boring to you, but holy cow! look at what I got done:
~The new book manuscript has expanded by 20 or so pages.
~I have reduced myself by about 4 pounds by simply not overeating.
~A few items have been crossed off my to-do list. New insurance for house and car. New drug plan I hopefully will never use for Medicare. Scheduled my "Welcome to Medicare" preventive visit for January.
~A big section of my tightly packed storage closet under the stairs was opened up when I realized that I may never go camping again and gave all my gear to my daughter.
~I managed to visit a book club that had read Leave the Dogs at Home and not make a fool of myself.
~To help me keep my character Connie in my new manuscript in context, I read a 1969 issue of Zap Comix, the little red Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung book, and big chucks of books and articles about the Weatherman bombings in the 1970s. AND I joyfully did a little off-topic reading in the rolling and unrolling essays in The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit - book I’ve been meaning to read for over a year.
~I dedicated a few hours each day to promoting Leave the Dogs at Home and prodding others to chat it up.
~I’ve maintained a healthy balance between sit-your-butt-in-the chair focus and get-your-butt-moving walks, leaf-sweeping, and bicycle riding. I haven’t eaten too much chocolate or had too much beer or tipped back more than one glass of wine in the evening. I’ve kept a happy balance between bread, meat and veggies.
~I figured out how to make my computer quit misbehaving, again.
~I finally wrote a blog post.
True, not everything is perfect.
There is a stack of Paris books and artifacts on the upstairs couch that’s been there over a month. Recipes, magazines, and who knows what are scattered on the dining room table and kitchen counters that really need to be scrubbed down. And, my desk. It's a hot mess.
Out overall, it feels wonderful. This structured life is good for me. My brain is charged and sparky. My gut is less gassy and burny. And Shit is gettin' done.
But that fringe of mess around the house? That's a rebellion brewing in the alleyways of my being. A small collection of cells who want to just go screw around. They’ve started protesting. Marching the back streets with signs held high and chanting, “Hell no we won’t go.”
If I ignore the rebels they will come with pitchforks and sharpened hoes to break down the static structure of my days. Blockade the progress of the new book with day dreaming. Sabotage my balanced diet by gobbling the stacks of cookies I take to my book events.
So this is my secret plan: Give in, just a little. Let the rebels run freely, maybe for a whole day, wear them out so they will go sleep like dogs after a day of romping in the woods. Because without them, without their wild, dynamic chaos, the clamp of structure would closes everything down, and I would have to abandon all for complete rebellion.
Tuesday was Arbogast feast day. I was so busy, I forgot to celebrate. I almost always forget. You'd think I'd remember, because the 21st is also my father's birthday, a memory rich with vats of homemade ice cream and plates heavy with thick-sliced tomatoes. oh well.
Instead I will give a nod to my 5th great grandfather, Michael who, with his wife Elizabeth, started up the Arbogast clan that arose from Virginia. Michael immigrated from Cologne, Germany where he was born in 1734. He arrived on the Speedwell in Philadelphia at age 17, parents and siblings all dead, and threaded his way through the big mountains west of the Shenandoah Valley to Highland County in 1758. These days, Arbogast is known as a "good valley name" and the graveyards are full of Arbogast tombstones, unlike Indiana.
Immigrants from Germany, England and Ireland (plus a few folks wooed from Pennsylvania) were the ones who felled the trees in Virginia to made way for the farms, and to pay off their passage. He was naturalized in 1770, patented 130 acres there in 1773 and added more acreage over the years. He married a natural born Virginian and fathered two rarely noted daughters and seven oft-noted sons (several of whom served in the American Revolution).
He died at age 79. In his will, he left his wife "one-third possession of at the time of my decease for and during her natural life time and her to keep possession of the dwelling house where in I live during the said period of her life and the adjoining to said house and all the under of following articles: to-wit, her bed and furniture, one pot, one baskin, one dish, two plates, two spoons, one fleish fork, one laddle, one kettle, one coffee pot, two teacups and saucers, one set of knives and forks, lisc (?) tin cups, two chairs, one large chest, one spinning wheel, one wool wheel, one pair wool cards, one pair cotton cards, the table in the house, all her books, her saddle and bridle, one tin bucket, three coolers for milk, two head sheep, two of my best milk cows, one horse creature, of not less value than fifteen pounds currant money, all her clothes, and the mulatto girl named Nancy."
I hope things worked out okay for Nancy.
My 4th great grandfather, David Arbogast. and his brother Michael, and "their heirs from them" were excluded. Maybe they had already received their shares when emigrating on to the east, or maybe there just wasn't enough room in Virginia for all of those big Arbogast personalities. Michael moved over the mountain to establish Arbovale, now part of West Virginia. David moved to Indiana, leaving his twin brother behind.
David, who with his wife Elizabeth had five sons and four daughters, died at 109 years of age in Andersonville, in Posey Township - about two hours away in the northwest corner of Franklin County. Originally known as Ceylon, was laid out in 1837 by Fletcher Tevis, and renamed in 1849 after Thomas Anderson, a tavern owner. David was living in Virginia when he was 49, and it looks like all the kids moved with him, so the next 50 years surely were interesting.
Last weekend I was at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Custer, Wisconsin. Someplace I would never be except for the influence of my honey, Steve. He’s a solar, energy-efficient kind of guy and hanging with him lands me in curious places.
In 15 white tents set on the high meadow grounds of the ReNew the Earth Institute, the fair is a 3-day solar energy affair at heart. Solar panels, solar batteries, solar racking systems, solar ovens, solar cars, solar motorcycles, and off-grid technologies - with heaping side helpings of sustainability, farming, alternative construction methods, aquaculture, herbal medicine, kombucha-making seminars and workshops. All digested with the help of beet burgers, organic prairie brats, and pizza baked in cob ovens and washed down with glass pints of Central Waters solar-brewed beer.
It was more hip than the John Hartman festival last month in Bean Blossom. Dreadlocks abounded. Alternative funk-rock bands and frog choruses played on stages. You could donate $10 and get a free bucket of compost made from the collected waste of last year’s fair. There was a distinct Changing the World charge in the air, both implicit and spoken. There was even an ad in the program from a financial advisor wanting people to invest to Change the World.
Keynote speaker Jon Wellinghoff, Immediate Past Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), talked about the net metering war between utilities and those providing solar to the grid. He warned about the electrical grid being vulnerable to terrorist attack. Right at the very end of his speech he predicted that new technology changes will force policy change.
The next day, Amy Goodman, (host and executive producer of Democracy Now! - the independent, news program you can see around here on Free Speech TV or listen to on WFHB) welcomed us in the main tent to “the sanctuary of dissent.” In promotion of her book (The Silenced Majority - Stories of Uprisings, Occupations, Resistance, and Hope written with her husband Denis Moynihan) she told stories about the voices of ordinary people standing up to corporate and government power - and refusing to be silent. When “people speak for themselves, when people speak from their own experience, it breaks down bigotry,” she said. Not to agree, but to get to an understanding of where someone is coming from. “And that's where peace begins.”
She talked about Pope Francis in his stunning encyclical on the environment and climate change, calling for swift action to save the planet from environmental ruin, urging world leaders to listen and for a change of the throwaway consumer culture.
She quoted Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
“There is a hunger for communication, for democracy,” she said before raising her hand in a V-ed peace sign at the end of her speech.
My little radial heart quickened and went pit-pat.
It was susceptible. For the past few months I’ve been researching the political movements of the 1960s and early 70s for the new novel I’m writing. Half of my dining room table is covered with era books about social dissent and alternative living ideas. I’ve been watching radical documentaries and movies. Built a hippies board on Pinterest. My young heroine Connie Borders - who lives in my heart and head - wants, more than anything, to be part of Changing the World.
I left the Energy Fair feeling as if I need to re-engage with Changing the World.
It’s not a new feeling for me. It’s been banging around inside since I retired five years ago and am free from the scowls of clients and bosses to do and think whatever I damned well please.
I have friends who are pure activists, despite their jobs. They write letters to congress. They protest. They post outrage on Facebook. But I was never that brave, or pure.
Is my old revolutionary spunk renewable? I have tried a couple times to get involved. I’m not interested in Changing the World on the grand scale. I want things in my sphere of influence. To be a good neighbor and to live local. If we all did that, it would be Changing the World.
So I gave it up.
But when I got home from Wisconsin, the next night was a member-owner’s meeting about the financial crisis the BloomingFoods coop is facing. I decided to go, just to listen. The board chair reminded us that Changing the World was the reason the coop was started decades ago. And now, the coop world is changing.
Soon I found myself, Amy Goodman and Connie Borders standing invisibly next to me, speaking out. Pleading for a return to the philosophy of affordable food and a transparency with the comments and feedback of members. Afterwards, I was urged by a neighbor to attend a coop Community Linkage Committee meeting.
I was resistant at first.
It’s the same night as Green Drinks where big issues are brought to the local level and served with cold craft beer. But the next day was studded with conversations about the BloomingFoods situation. Soon I found myself suggesting to others that they attend the coop meeting. And I realized that my thin tie to Changing the World, my philosophy of living locally and being a good neighbor, dictates attendance at the coop meeting.
So I am going.
I was shocked to discover, via a May 15 article in the NYT, that the stereotype for solo travelers is someone who is “single and looking,” on a dating holiday. Really? Of course, people would only go on vacation by themselves if they were looking for sex, or perhaps marriage! Not looking for the brilliant onion domes of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, not yearning for a perfect croissant in street-side cafe, not hoping to wander for a day in acres of gardens. No, we’re out touring the world hoping to get lucky, to cure ourselves of the singleton disease. This is news to me and the all the other people that make up the one in five people who traveled on their own on their most recent leisure trip, mostly women.
The Visa study cited noted that solo traveling was done mainly by “Women Wanderers” under age 45 (rats, I was hoping for a good showing for the over-60 crowd), and half were professionals from China and India. Again, down come crashing myths. What? Women from restrictive, third-world countries are professionals and they travel by themselves more than women from the USA?
The most frequent response I have to my solo womanly world wanderings is, “Oh you are so brave to go by yourself.” I have a hard time knowing what to say back. By nature, I am not a joiner. I live by myself and have for most of my life. So what, I’m supposed to hunker down with a tour group or cozy up with someone for a couple weeks of tight quarters? I’ve tried it, and learned. I don’t want to spend my vacation negotiating with someone else about when we go where, why. I don’t find the constant chatter of a companion a good sound track for exploration. Interjecting worry about whether or not my pal having a good time, is an extra layer of stress I prefer to leave behind.
So far, Steve and I are able to travel together peacefully, but his companionship is not a requirement for me to go on a trip.
I just returned from a ten-day solo adventure to Russia. A place shrouded in media myths; a country with a remarkable history and role in today’s world churn, it provided a double whammy to folks’ amazement about me traveling alone. “Ew, why Russia? By yourself? You are so brave!”
Oh Fiddlesticks! I‘m not brave; I’m a well-researched, curious traveler. I felt I needed to get to Russia if I was ever going to. Emotions are running high out there in the rarefied clouds of global politics, who knows when the doors would close and I would miss the chance to walk through palaces, past onion dome Orthodox churches, down blocks and blocks of beautiful buildings while thinking about Mongol Hordes, serfdom, the siege of Leningrad, the great social experiments of socialism and communism? Miss finding bowls of borscht or Uha fish soup, plates of pickled herring, or piles of Pelmeni dumplings stuffed with mushrooms? Miss immersing myself for days in art, losing myself in a night of flawless, extravagant, and passionate ballet? Miss wandering through sophisticated shops while cosmopolitan, stylish women stride tall beside me? No way!
There were hard moments during the trip but I’m not sure any of them would have been better if someone else was there. In fact, I finally settled on a very Zen-like, do-one-thing concentration to get myself around in the enormous public spaces and the particularly vexing Moscow metro. I found time slipped away, paring down my vacation to-do list with the velocity of a sharp Soviet scythe. I’m glad I didn’t have to argue with anyone about where I was or what was getting chopped off the list.
Here are a couple essays from my days there.
May 2 St. Petersburg: Go with the flow
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