Thursday, June 28, 2012

Another Post From My Work-In-Progress

Day 23
 Highway this morning edged in tall, thin pines and orange, purple, and yellow wildflowers growing in the grass along the shoulder.  And then, all of a sudden, the pines opened onto an enormous meadow: green, un-mowed and a little shaggy, vast.  It was a kind of gift, a glimpse into what is hidden and enchanted.
 I’ve noticed that birds that look like egrets hang out near the cows munching in the fields.  So I googled it and found that they are cattle egrets—a kind of heron—and they hang out with cows because cows’ shambling gaits cause insects to rise from the grass.  Cattle egrets need insects to survive.  This is called commensal feeding, because the egrets profit from the relationship, but the cows don’t.  The Internet is a wonderful thing.
 Lake City is another in a string of small Florida towns: a mix of the pastoral and the ugly ordinariness of mobile-home sales, fast-food and barbeque joints, churches, real-estate and insurance offices.  And flower shops.  Small, southern towns have a lot of florists.   Do people really have enough money to buy fresh flowers on a regular-enough basis to keep these shops in business?  The one in Lake City has a sign out front: Life Is the Flower; Love Is the Pot. 
A large percentage of roadside business in the south is devoted to selling, repairing, and repossessing mobile-homes.  I don’t remember this from the last time I was here.  I suspect this hints at something fundamental that is changing in this country.  It is yet another facet of life that is so different from mine that I can’t claim really to understand it.   How do you live in a double-wide?  In one of those parks?  I simply do not know. 
 And that reminds me how hard it is to know how anybody really lives.  I remember Oprah hosting an early show about stay-at-home moms.  And in her genuine, nonjudgmental way, she asked them, What do you do all day?  Really, what do you do?  She didn’t know. 
 I don’t know how to live in a small town (as opposed to a suburb).  I don’t know how to live a life that involves going to an actual job every day.  I don’t know how people live where it snows.  (I did it in college, but somehow, that doesn’t count.  Someone else drove me around and cooked my food.) 
 In a weird way, thinking about how other people live is like thinking about death.  You just can’t quite put yourself there. 
 My mother grew up in an orphanage, without parents.  I simply cannot imagine how she survived.  But she always had remarkably little curiosity about how other people lived.  I would muse about life on farms, something that, as a young adult, I convinced myself I would love.  (I realize now it was because I had heavily romanticized attitudes about livestock and homemade pie.) And my mother would say impatiently, You would hate it.  It’s just like your life here, except you would have to work harder. 
 She was right, of course.  Sort of.  The rain would have really mattered.  The air would have smelled like hay.
Once, on a car trip from San Francisco to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, my mother told me about a long-ago train trip she’d taken.  We were at that moment driving through an Iowa cornfield, and that is what reminded her.  She said she sat next to a boy a little bit older than she—maybe 20 or 21—and he told her that farmers said, “The corn is knee-high by the Fourth of July.”  She never forgot that, she said.  (Well, she’s forgotten it now.)  She said it wistfully, and I, who was 20 or 21 at the time, knew without being told that she had liked the boy and had always wondered what had happened to him and how things might have been different.
Now, when I see a cornfield, that is always what I think about.  Her memory has become mine, like a handed-down pair of shoes. 

The things I like about traveling are: staying in clean hotels, eating food that I didn’t have to cook, seeing things I never really believed I would see (Westminster Abbey, Mount Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower, the Mitchell, South Dakota Corn Palace), and thinking about how people live.  And always, I come home with the realization that I can’t put myself into other people’s daily routines.  I can imagine them, but I can’t know in the way that I want to.
 When I was 17, I went to New York by myself.  My cousins took me to a stage performance by Theodore Bikel, which I barely remember, because I sat in the theater feeling overwhelmed with the feeling that I was Somewhere Else. 
 I’ve visited many people’s homes in many unfamiliar places.  But I think that was the closest I ever came to being in other people’s lives.  Maybe it was because I was young and without defenses.  Maybe it was because I hadn’t lived enough to intellectualize my wonder and was experiencing it on an emotional, visceral level.  I don’t really know.  What I do remember is coming back to my cousin’s Upper West Side apartment, closing the door to the guest bedroom I’d been given, and feeling that the air itself was made of different atoms and that by breathing it, I was not quite filling my lungs, was gasping like a fish just caught and flung into a boat

1 comment:

  1. This is fantastic. Can't wait for the next excerpt!