Anne Notations

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Paradise recalled

Looking west across Sakonnet Passage from Little Compton, RI

Last night I dreamed I went to Little Compton again. Michael and I stood on a grassy hillside; he had just presented me with a tiny German shorthaired pointer pup in a soft-sided carrier, and I was in love. A slightly older pointer appeared, and he explained that this one, also, was for us. It was warm; a breeze combed the grass around us; waves tossed on the Sakonnet; I took Michael's hand. I woke up and thought: Was that paradise?

We lived in Little Compton, RI, for nine years (1978-87), far less time than we've spent in Providence before and since. The town will always inhabit my memory in a peculiarly vivid way. Countryside and salt water... dairy farms, potato and corn fields, mansions, and summer houses... wealthy summer folks and bluff year-rounders. I know my memories are rosily romantic, but it's hard to conjure anything else. Really, the place was magic.

In the fields abutting our acre I took long walks with our dogs (Bonnie, Heidi, Kelly -- two German shorthairs and a tiny beagle) very early every morning. I saw beauty on those walks and, a few times, inexplicable things that sound crazily mystical when I try to describe them (so mostly I don't). In my fitful journals, typed in the small sunroom off our first-floor bedroom, I wrote a few good things back then:

December 31, 1983
Over the stone wall, into the potato field, toward the line of trees and brush the dogs and I walked. It was cold; the sun was pale and low in the sky.

Turning down the truck path toward the water, I noticed something in the clearing to our left: small gray boulders in the frozen ground. I looked again.

Some twenty Canada geese reposed in the field, utterly silent and still. Most were sleeping, clearly exhausted, vulnerable and trusting with their long necks stretched before them on brown dirt. Three were awake, their necks bolt upright like periscopes. The wedges of their sentinel heads turned toward me, but not a feather moved, not a beak opened. "My God!" I whispered. Still the geese remained, stone figures in a deserted garden. I thought of their journey south, the miles they had covered yesterday. Tenderness filled my heart for the great slumbering birds. In a few hours they would take wing, rising and swirling, wings thundering and full-throated cries skirling like bagpipes across the fields and the slate mirror of the bay.

July 8, 1984
"Nature could trap. You could wander among sweet grasses and not think of God. You could mistake the grass for God, the fragrance. ... The grass could make you love the world, and Father Cyprian had said... 'You must hate the world and love God.'" -- Mary Gordon, The Company of Women

If nature is a trap, and godless, I would almost rather forgo God and stay ensnared. Better to be held weightless in the clarity of this cool summer evening. To watch a young rabbit the size of a hamster inhale long stems of grass like strands of spaghetti, next to the lilies across the dirt lane; laughing at its appetite, loving with all my heart its neat, almost transparent ears, the smooth brown fur of its flank. To feel the sea wind as the sun sets, to watch laundered beach towels dance and snap on the clothesline outside this window. To step around the curled forms of our three dogs, each lying in her patch of blue carpet like splotched warm rocks in a pond.

A trap baited with beauty, and eliciting boundless love.

I'll risk it. I'll love the world and God, too. Because I've seen and felt and heard and tasted knowledge deeper than the brittle sensible reasoning of my brain. In the buzzing, teeming fields I walk each day, I recognize a holiness that is much greater than its parts.

Baled hay in a Little Compton field

Friday, May 20, 2005

Holy Sith!

The last episode of Star Wars came to town, and Peter and I were there for the midnight showing. I even made the newspaper the next morning!

Peter, Chewbacca, me, and Darth Vader before the show

After three years of waiting, and scarcely breathing for two hours and 20 minutes of watching Revenge of the Sith, I am close to speechless. Did I love it because I am a SW freak, or because it's really good? I'm not sure yet. I'm missing that "gotta watch it again RIGHT NOW" feeling I developed for Attack of the Clones in 2002. Of course, that one took me by surprise; I wasn't expecting to love it, but I did. With ROTS, there was so much buildup, including the convention in Indy, I think I'm somewhat stunned that it's all over so soon.

This weekend I'll see the movie again with Michael and the kids. I'm betting I'll have clearer thoughts after the second viewing, when I'm not in a state of near-manic anticipation.

Meditate on this, I will.

Monday, May 02, 2005

What lies between

Heading west from Pennsylvania into Ohio, I watched dawn's gray light race our Greyhound bus across the open farmland. The earth became flat as a starched sheet, tea-stained with squares of sepia and dark-brown soil and embroidered with lines of slender trees and redbuds whose fronds of chartreuse and magenta reached skyward. Unplowed fields were furred with cornstalk stubble. Every now and then a white farmhouse would race toward us and disappear behind, flanked by four or five large windbreak trees and with a red barn riding sidesaddle. In the distance, similar outposts of farmhouse-trees-barn were visible for miles, stretching to the horizon.

I would drift back to sleep in the bus and, upon awakening a half-hour or more later, look out the window and see the same scene. Over and over, through Ohio and on into Indiana. When you live on one of the coasts, you easily forget how big our country is and how sparsely populated areas of the Midwest and West still are. You forget that the wheat in your loaf of Branola comes from farms like these across the heartland.

When I was ages three through seven we lived in a Chicago suburb. In the summer occasionally my parents would drive us away from the elm-lined streets and into the Illinois plains to attend a country fair. I can still see the flat, flat farmland flung outward from those carnivals with their ferris wheels and tents. It seemed to me then, as it does after my recent trip now, that the plains were crowding hungrily around the cities, trying to swallow them, rather than vice versa as is the case on the East Coast today, where exurbia busily gobbles what little farmland remains.

While geographically the connection is imprecise, the fertile plains of Ohio and Indiana that unfurled outside my bus window made me think of Willa Cather's majestic descriptions of the prairie. "The old pasture land was now being broken up into wheatfields and cornfields," she wrote in My Antonia. "The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea."

Half of my roots are in Midwestern soil. My maternal German ancestors immigrated in the mid-1800s to Missouri, where they farmed, worked as blacksmiths, and raised children who married other German Americans. Some of these children moved into St. Louis, such as my great-grandfather William Girthofer, who worked as a postal carrier, a department-store clerk, and eventually a Palmer-trained practitioner of chiropractic medicine. His wife, Elizabeth Brune, grew up on a farm and often visited the folks back home in the countryside. I have their photographs in Grandma's albums: clear-eyed, straight-backed pioneers, equally attached to genteel manners and hard work. I fancy them the very soul of the heartland, progenitors of America's middle-class prosperity in the twentieth century.

By the time Indianapolis arose from the plains at midday like the Emerald City, my eyes were numb from gazing at flat squares of land and sparse regiments of trees. Outside the East Coast's dense megalopolis, I was adrift and dazed. Yet my heart recognized those plains and their neat farms. I had traveled far from family and home, but still it felt a bit like homecoming.