Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I had some paintings accepted in a show hosted at the George Segal Gallery at Montclair State University in New Jersey. It had been many years since I had been back to the place I was born. It was where I had spent the first eighteen years of my life and in a way I still consider Home. Thinking that this might be my last chance to connect with any remnants of my past life, I decided to go to the show.
My trip started at 4 a.m. when I began make my way to the local airport shuttle service. The jet had a GPS system integrated on entertainment monitors on the seat before every passenger. As the plane approaches the destination airport you can zoom in on the part of the earth you are flying over. Your experience of the world becomes enlarged as it is technologically compressed on screen before you. As the plane made its 6+ hr. flight from PDT to EDT, the monitor's tiny plane icon blinked, first over a digital representation of Nevada, then Utah, Colorado , Kansas and so on. As we approached Newark, our destination, the image zoomed in so that individual cities and local topography could be discerned. The jet flew over the Morristown/Mendham area. The GPS picked up the wave-like hills the glaciers had carved out 18,000 years ago and over which I had ridden my bike 50 years ago. The geographic landscape of my childhood was digitally depicted before me and this seemed to suit the underlining purpose our my journey well.
According to Tibetan theology there is a period of time in the bardo, after you die, that you can visit any place you can imagine. During this time you are not confined to laws of Time and Space. When you go to visit your childhood home or, anywhere else, it will be as it was when you lived it. If you linger, you are what is know as a "Hungry Ghost". The doctrine speaks to our tendencies to clinging attachment and the teaching is to keep moving and live your life to its fullest now.
I landed in Newark at about 4:30pm EST rented a car a began to negotiate my way to Essex Fells where I stayed with Ted and Martha Nevins. Ted was my dad's best and oldest friend. They first met in grade school. They went to Princeton together flew planes during WW2 together and Ted was still around when Dad died. For me, Ted showed me my father was a "regular guy". When Ted was around, the veneer of "Father" was peeled away from my Dad and I caught glimpses of a man with strengths and weaknesses. Above all, I saw a man who had a sense of humor. Ted's enduring presence also taught me the value of persistence in relationship - a lesson I continue to take to heart. Ted and Martha generously took me in, out and to the show. Ted made sure I got up in the morning in time to catch my flight and called me at the airport to make sure I had made it. It was a the very best way to visit the place I am from. A place where my roots are but echoes in the memory of Earth, where I am, now, mostly a stranger.
The opening for the show was was Saturday afternoon. As I entered the gallery. I was pleased to see my relatively heavy paintings had arrived safely and were displayed well. I had sent out postcards to people I knew were still in the area but had no idea who, if anybody, would show up. After the awards were announced ( I didn't win ) I took a walk around the campus. Upon reentering the gallery I heard my childhood name called. Karen is my cousin and I had not seen her for more than twenty-five years. I was a very young man when she acted as a surrogate big sister to me. Since I had no real older sister she acted as one to me when she graciously conferred the status as a "punk" little brother on me. When visiting her in Manhattan, Sausalito or San Francisco she demonstrated the excitement glamour of young adult life. At the same time managed to show a patient appreciation of my stabs at manhood - something of huge value for a young man seeking to understand the the mysteries of relations with the opposite sex.
The second phase of my trip consisted of a visit to my mother and my sister in Florida. The occasion was loosely for my mother's 88th birthday. There, in the presence of these two women I find another Home. There is something about "unconditional love" that turns me into a baby. Though I plan to act in a mature manner, I end up taking more than I give and my departure is probably felt as a relief. I was not an easy child for my mother, though I do think she took and still takes some pride in my existence. As a child, much of our time together was spent running to some Emergency Room. We visited the E.R. in every vacation spot from Bermuda to Canada and that was just the physical traumas. I also had my psychological ailments that needed attention as well. My presence in my sister's life likewise would not be considered comforting. Poor Liese endured the crueler aspects of my personality. When we were kids, at the dining room table, after teasing her to the point of tears, I would feel a sense of predatory accomplishment. And yet, though the years my sister and I remain very close and I have a regular need to talk with her.
Another place I feel home is near some of my favorite rivers. Of course this usually includes the act of fishing. Fishing is the format of the dialog I have with nature. When walking beside a river, I often think, why has it been so long since I have been here? Its like saying to a friend, "Why has it been so long since we talked?" I feel an intimate sense of being apart of something grander and more beautiful when I am fishing. It is much like being in love. The world seems to shrink into very simple elements. The sound of moving water, the myriad of color and texture brought about by reflection and transparency fills my senses. Of course at other times, like love, it can be a very lonely place. Like love, this has to do with expectations. Now, that I am an nearly an old man, I am more willing to see the value of failure. In Love and Fishing it is failure that reminds you of life's true objective.
My dear sister knows how I feel about water and fishing and arranged with her significant other (Randy) to take me out on an exploration of Fakahatchee River ( the indigenous people had a way with words ) in the Ten Thousand Island area of Florida's West Coast. Randy expertly navigated our way through the mangrove islands over sand bars and under low hanging branches. We maneuvered our way up to what is considered the Big Lake, 8 miles from the marina. Then we worked our way back, checking the the Fish Finder for deep holes and fish. The Red Mangrove Snappers were mostly bait thieves but fun when you could hook them. When we hooked one catfish, we hooked fifteen. Eventually we realized we were in a "bad neighborhood" and that wherever one slimy, spiky, belching catfish was, no other more desirable fish would reside. At the mouth of a narrow mangrove channel the Fish Finder depicted a deep hole with lots of dark spots suspended above the the bottom. First we caught a few small Snook then Randy hooked and landed a nice Black Drum. He was holding it, considering dinner, when we both hooked two bigger fish. Mine was a Lady Fish and Randy had another Snook. During the excitement, somehow the Black Drum found its way back into the water. The channel was about fifteen feet wide and we were drifting down it when we heard a large splash around the bend. It sounded like someone had dropped anchor but there weren't any other boats around. "Tarpon!" we both said in unison. We were still getting numerous bites so we continued to fish where we were. When I lost a lure to a big Snook I tied on a silver Wabbler and cast down in the direction we were drifting. The Tarpon hit my lure with a huge jolt and rushed back around the bend. Near the bank in a bramble of mangrove branches we saw it jump shining very silvery, about three feet long, and then it was off. The entire day we had only seen one other human; someone who look as part of the environment is the mangroves. Randy said he was a Crabber.
The meaning and importance of Home is most clearly understood when we feel its absence. When young I suffered what is now called "Separation Anxiety". At the time, when asked, "How do you feel ?" I would reply, "Homesick". The first severe episode was in the third grade. I became so emotionally fragile that I could not attend school. Every school day was pure Hell. I was old enough to know that I was expected to be able to attend school like my peers. The emptiness I felt was as tangible as a lead weight. Though I was physically healthy, emotionally, I had not the strength to live. Anyone who has felt this way understands. This is not an ailment you can see, like a broken leg, but is just as debilitating. It is of interest to me now, as I reflect on the meaning of Home, that my third grade mind ( my 'Beginner's Mind' ) identified the source of my ailment as having something to do with Home. My young mind, when searching for the source of my ailment, found something was missing. What was it that was missing? What is it, as adults, that we are expected to provide for ourselves and our children but often are unable? What is it that we call Home?
Last night I was offered an insight. We watched a movie about an Indian woman in London and her desire to return home after 20 years. The movie's lush images of a tropical Indian village of the woman's past contrasted with the cold gritty streets of her present life in London. There was longing depicted in her eyes as she relived her past life. She understood the home she had known was no more yet, she could not let go of her desire to return. Her attachment memories of the past made her a 'Hungry Ghost' in life. When, unexpectedly, the unattainable became attainable (returning home) the illusory Home lost its grip and she realized Home was within her grasp. Later, Laurie and I reflected on the movie we had seen. We talked about what Home was to us, our sons, the house, our dog, deferred maintenance, mortgage, neighbors, garden .... Then after a brief silence she said, "Home is not a place you can go. It is something you keep inside." The only thing I might add is: Home is something you take with you everywhere you go - even to those places you once called Home.