Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Down and Back: Changes, Samenesses

A week away, back to the homeland, land of the once home, though home is not a place--where you're born may not be where you end up and home could be a place you've never been but only dreamed about, a place unmarked by time, where you go sometimes in your head ...   The thought of seeing those mountains again, then reality intervenes  ...

We were kept back at the Vermont border, the entire bus load of us, held for two and a half hours because of something found at the back of the bus. Must have been serious, judging by the level of concern, all those uniformed officers rushing to and fro, the dogs coming out (three times), questioning all of us one by one, after we had already passed through being individually identified and then told to drop everything we were carrying: coats, bags, books, lunches, purses, on the floor and go to a holding area. All one's belongings, not just your luggage underneath the bus but laptops, jackets, and pocketbooks or wallets containing personal papers, family photographs, address book, receipts, business cards, notebook jottings, can be demanded and searched without your being present, all in the name of national security.

Even after having been cleared and reboarding the bus, some passengers were called back again for further questioning.  Eventually, having been declared worthy of proceeding, they let us continue on to our destination. All were perplexed, some fearful; most, however, a bit irritated, especially those having to catch a plane or make a bus connection.  On our way again, the mountains were waiting, snow-clad sentinels rolling across Vermont, it was like embracing old friends again.

Mr. Chiroptera here, suspended from the ceiling of a room in Harvard's Museum of Natural History (home of the world’s only mounted Kronosaurus, a 42-foot-long prehistoric marine reptile). My father was an avid hunter/fisherman and when my mother died, the question of who should get the mounted deer head was discussed.  I'd always had difficulty looking at what was left of that once magnificent creature--or any stuffed and mounted former-living animal, for that matter, with those sad or astonished glass eyes.  This bat, if it could talk, I wonder what it would say. I've never seen a real bat up close, dead or alive, but he seems to be trying to say something to us, which I failed to notice until I retrieved the photo out of my camera.

The colors were so much more impressive in person!  My mother's cousin--a priest who worked in a prison, --collected butterflies.  Those beauties, pressed and immortalized under framed glass, were also passed along to a family member at one point.  But these--!!! The colors seemed like songs rolling off each wing.  You had to have been there.Silent bursts of light, but "singing."

Going from room to room, looking at dinosaur bones, giant crabs, tiny beetles, a 1,600- pound amethyst geode from Brazil, the hall of mammals, one grandbub is wowed by the sheer size of a prehistoric fossil, another is using a magnifying glass to examine the eye of an insect, and I'm reading a wall plaque about French astronomer/naturalist Leopold Trouvelot who in 1868 attempted to breed a better silkworm using imported Gypsy moths. Some of the moths escaped from the tree in his backyard in Medford (Massachusetts) where he'd been culturing them and within ten years, the vegetation in the neighborhood was completedly denuded by them.  Gypsy moths then spread all over North America.  Oops.

Some native masks on the wall of a room where the children got to try on thick gloves made from caribou fur and hear a talk on ancient hunting practices. This being school winter-vacation week,  the museum was bursting with curious little beings oooing and ahhhing at the wonders of preserved life from millions of years ago--as well as the glass pendants, arrowheads, lab kits, books, games and toys in the gift shop near the exit. A fun and informative afternoon, then a walk about eight or nine blocks back to where we had parked the car. Finding parking space in Cambridge is nearly impossible--unless you have a resident parking permit or can grab a space before someone else gets to it first.

On March 7 the American Repertory Theater will host a "Theater of War" on Brattle Street, free and open to the public where (according to the flyer I saw posted), they'll "present readings of Sophocles's Ajax and Philoctetes as a catalyst for town hall discussions about the challenges faced by soldiers, veterans and their families and caregivers today."  An interesting project, inviting open discussion of the impact of war rather than the seeming necessity for it.  Lots of discussion in various circles about how much we should or should not spend on weapons, books galore on the "art" of war, on how best to strategize, fight war, etc.; not a heck of a lot, though, on the impact of war on those who have to fight it and those whose lives are destroyed because of it.  Bravo, A.R.T. for calling attention to that.

Lots of snow down Massachusetts way, almost as much as back home in Quebec. Except it melts faster and is gone quicker there.  Each new snowfall (or the threat of it) was met with a collective groan and the wish for it all to just Go Away, and for Spring to get here.  At least that was the chorus I heard there and I had to agree, one does get tired of the cold.  But the snow?  Never.  Or at least, almost never.  I've not yet tired of it.  (Ask me again around mid-April if I still feel the same.)

 Always a pleasure to visit the old environs, as they say; see old friends, re-walk favorite streets, discover new delights.  Like the little Tibetan cafe on Elm Street in Davis Square. I have never been able to stomach Tibetan tea (tea blended with butter, salt and milk) but I love just about everything else of their food.  So much going on (good films, plays, lectures, concerts, art exhibits, poetry readings--and folk dancing, practically every night of the week) and I always return home wishing I'd planned in advance or factored in more time.

 I no longer have a library card there but I'd love to spend a few hours again in Widener, among the stacks, doing some research.  A researcher's dream place. I remember lunch hours spent descending four levels down those clunky metal stairs to poke through dusty archives, boxes of documents, scanning microfiches, taking notes, finding information unavailable elsewhere; it opened up whole other worlds for me, not unlike being adrift in history, with a fresh set of eyes.  Or something like that.  So many, many books that are never being read anymore, that can tell you so much! Whatever my particular inquiry at the time, it always led to more equally compelling and  interesting 'finds' and I confess to missing that happy sense of discovery, like finding some buried treasure.

Widener (the library) was named for a young book lover who went down with the Titanic. It holds more than 15 million volumes and is second in size only to the Library of Congress. It has six floors above ground and four stories below ground (with two other levels attached by underground tunnel)  It was down in these 'underground' shelves where I spent most of my time. Ah, those were the days.  And of course, lunch hours were simply not enough time, so I'd come back again, later.

One of my (other) favorite places was a stationery store called Bob Slate's, in Porter Square. I say "was" because it is slated to close this month. This store has been in existence for 78 years.  I bought my ink and pens and pencils and paper there.  News of its closing hit me like a ton of bricks.  I stopped by and a salesperson I hadn't seen in 15 years remembered me.  "I haven't seen you in here lately," she said, as if it were only last week or so that I'd been there. I gazed longingly at the rapidographs lined up inside a glass case, tried out an extra-fine, thin brown marker, bought a sketching tablet and watercolors & some brushes.  The next time I pass by there it will probably be a boutique where Bob Slate's used to be, or a pizza place, or an empty storefront with a For Rent sign on it. The owners have been trying to sell all three of its stores for some time, with no luck. :(

Also visited some Tibetan friends and asked about the situation in Lahasa from someone who would know. Not good, they told me.  The Tibetan language is not taught in schools; pictures of the Dalai Lama are still forbidden; you have to be careful what you say. For example, if you're calling someone in Tibet and you begin with the word "Hello", or "Hi", the phone will suddenly disconnect (because you're speaking English. They apparently listen in on International phone calls).  "Everything has changed there," I was told.  New buildings are going up, but the Tibetan culture is slowly being ... erased.  Tibetan Autonomous Region is not autonomous for Tibetans.  I don't know, shouldn't "Autonomy" mean not having to plead for your culture to be allowed to survive?

In the hallway outside a classroom at the grandbubs' elementary school, two bronze statues on a bench, encourage the reading of books.  The last day before school winter-vacation was "Pajama Day", kind of like a kid version of Casual Fridays in some business offices, where you can "dress down", wear jeans instead of a suit.  We ran into one of the teachers outside the classroom, who also wore her jammies.  (It had little bunnies on it.) But it was actually, a fundraising activity to help buy pajamas for poor children, hence the theme, "Pajama Day."

All too quickly the week ends with no more time to do all the things we'd hoped to.  In April, then; we'll try again in April.  The snow will be gone, the weather better, a birthday to celebrate, more news to catch up on.

Getting out of the U.S. was a breeze (compared to coming into it) and it was back through the snowy farmfields up into Montreal again, to catch another bus and ride past more snowy fields and finally home.  The next day it snowed some more (all day) and I re-shoveled the path out back and driveway, made supper and it's like I never left.  Two worlds--there, and here.  When I'm here, I'm sometimes There; when I'm there, I miss Here.  And when elsewhere, both--or neither, depending on the elsewhere.  What a thing.

And the mountains, always the mountains, the ones in Vermont, in Pennsylvania, in the Alps, but strangely, even those dull, flat, show-covered, flat field after field after field in the dark of the night passing by the bus window, a settled familiarity. Someone said to me recently, wondering where to move to if circumstances were right, "I don't know where I belong."  As if--again--as if it's a place.  But places change, or rather one's relation to a place changes. Or maybe the place remains the same and it's we who change.  How everything can change, from one day to the next, simply by the presence (or absence) of someone close to you.  When that happens, you look at everything differently. Going away, on brief, occasional, long trips, does that sometimes, in a way not ever going can't.

Anyway, I come home to a kazillion unfinished projects, a tweaking of perception, the hint of a new direction in certain endeavors.  "Are you writing?" a friend called to ask this morning, remembering I said I'd finish one such project "this year"--and I had to answer No.  (Blogging doesn't count, is in a different category, a different kind of emptying forth.)  On the bus en route I re-read half a Jessica Anderson novel about a quirky Australian family and coming back lugged along an enormously fat and heavy new Mark Twain tome autobiographied 100 years after his death, which took up more than half the suitcase, everything else had to be scrunched and rolled and carefully folded so as to make room for it.  Three other poetry books and 2 novels had to be squeezed in as well.  How to pack a suitcase without busting the seams, a true art.

Final photo: from the museum, in a hallway between floors, a single window with a waterpot on the sill.  Not sure what it was doing there, but I like windows, and this one--like Sir Chiroptera the bat, 'spoke' to me. Or rather, the scene did. It reminded me of a window I once saw in Belgium many years ago, only what sat on the sill then was a black cat and the view from the window included a piece of sky over a kind of steeple tower. Here there is only a boring security grill (and miniature announcement that the area is protected by ADT).  Still, it beckoned.


Elisabeth said...

What a wonderful ramble through these places, spaces and thoughts, Awyn. I'm with you as regards the look on that bat's face, but that was so long ago in this delightfully meandering post, where we've caught buses been held up for hours or unknown reasons, seen museums, examined stuffed animals and wondered yet again on the nature of blogging and the bittersweet pain of migration, that in between state where home is but a memory. Thanks.

awyn said...

Hi Elisabeth! I haven't heard that word in some time--"meandering"--but you're absolutely right! Each time I began to close, I remembered something else:"and--just let me add one more thing" (me "and"ering). Thanks for stopping by.

Jim Murdoch said...

In the town I grew up in there were no proper bookstores just newsagents like John Menzies. You had to travel into the city of Glasgow itself to find a real bookstore and I can remember to this day walking into John Smith’s on St Vincent Street. I would have been sixteen at the time and the word I used to describe it in my head was: Orgasmic! and that was only the ground floor. Unbelievably there were another five or six floors. John Smith & Son (Glasgow) Ltd was founded in 1751 in Glasgow. It is the city’s second oldest trading company and is the oldest bookselling company in the English-speaking world and now it’s an Internet café. Has been since 2000. I have to say I feel an ache every time I pass the place which, thankfully these days, is not very often. Now, of course, Borders has gone too and Ottakar's. Thankfully my favourite second-hand bookshop, Caledonia Books, is still on the go but two others in the west end have closed and I fear it’s only time.

awyn said...

True, Jim--and not only bookstores, but local libraries are closing in many places as well. That the printed book itself could one day become a rarity--now that would be a ache, and then some!

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, my local library closed last week. I had to leave my books outside in a blue wheelie bin which I thought was a bit prophetic. All in all the local council is closing three libraries. And do you know what? I live in West Dunbartonshire and there's apparently not a single bookshop in the entire county.