Boone to Some

Folk heroes sometimes put us in compromising positions.  We appreciate their importance for where we are and yet we recognize that where we are came at a tremendous cost for those who lived here first.  Still, I was somewhat surprised to learn that Daniel Boone was born right here in Pennsylvania.  Like most people my age, I learned of Boone primarily through the television series that aired in the 1960s.  In other words, I learned the commercial Boone.  In reality he was a fascinating individual who preferred outdoors living to the comforts of home.  His prominence meant that he would meet and know such figures as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  He was largely responsible for US westward expansion, leading the first Europeans into the territory of Kentucky.  His association with the south is so pronounced that I was surprised to learn he was born in a homestead, that is today, less than an hour north of Philadelphia.

Of course, the land settled by the Boone family was stolen from American Indians.  The story might be somewhat easier to appreciate if we treated Indians better today, but our culture still insists on repressing them.  Racism runs deep, it seems.  Boone himself seems mainly to have gotten along with the Indians he knew.  The fact is his story is exciting to hear.  He was an able negotiator and both Indians and other settlers respected his position.  When tales of his adventures were written down he became famous, if not wealthy.  What seems to have really struck those who heard his story is that he continued his outdoor existence into his eighties.  At an age when many have become frail, he continued to spend months of the year living outdoors in the wilderness.

Being there where he was born felt like a revelation.  Of course the docent was a gifted storyteller, and she told his story with humor and an obvious pride in the man who’s responsible for her living.  I reflected how television once again had shaped my childhood.  Fess Parker’s portrayal of Boone was among the most popular prime-time shows of the mid-sixties to 1970.  I had no idea that I was consuming pop culture in such quantities as I watched it, along with other staples such as Dark Shadows, Gilligan’s Island, Scooby-Doo, and the Brady Bunch.  Some people worry that the rising generation “learns” its narratives from the internet, but my generation learned them from television.  Daniel Boone would have, and indeed did, learned from the outdoors.


Places and Books

I recently had the opportunity to travel to a new town and spend the night there.  This is a rarity in the days of pandemic and I’d forgotten the magic of waking early in a new place and looking out the windows at the deserted, artificially lit streets.  It’s so peaceful and full of wonder.  The place we were staying was next to a public library and I noticed that there was a light on in the cupola in the pre-dawn hours.  I like the idea of books watching over us in the night.  Often when I’ve traveled to conferences I’ll arise early and look out on that orangey, artificial light while most other people are still asleep.  Even the city in pre-dawn can be a peaceful place.  This is a pleasant displacement since it’s only temporary.

One of the things about the pandemic is that it has accustomed us to life just so.  The controlled environment of home.  There’s a comfort to routine, but there’s wonder in breaking it as well.  When it’s not a conference and still a new city, I begin to look for a bookstore.  One of the common misconceptions—perhaps bolstered by the cookie-cutter experience that has been Barnes and Noble—is that bookstores are all the same.  They aren’t.  Each reflects the minds of the owners.  They reflect their knowledge of their public.  New ways of looking at things.  I suppose this fascination with books has been enhanced by my starting to read some Jorge Luis Borges again.  Those of us who read for pleasure are in the minority and we find the open book to be open arms welcoming us in.  Welcoming us home.

I always travel with books.  My travel bag carries my laptop and my reading.  New technology having to learn to adjust to the old.  I’m not a particular fan of technocracy.  I’ve always preferred paper to plastic.  In a new town I look for authenticity.  We lived for many years in Somerville, New Jersey and one of my concerns was that it couldn’t seem able to support a bookstore in the shadow of that equalizing Barnes and Noble.  The new owner, James Daunt, believes that bookstores should reflect local interests.  His own stores in Britain are cathedrals to books.  Unlike other industries, bookselling isn’t all about the business.  Much of it is about the place.  We travel to see new places, and we read to visit them as well.  And perhaps to reflect in the artificial orange glow before the city awakes.


Sacred Sites

The sacred is hard to define.  Calling it “holy”is only to pass the buck, and I can’t get beyond the feeling that we need something more up-to-date than Rudolf Otto.  Something that takes into account what the religious world looks like in the next century.  No matter which direction we turn we run into undefinable words—numinous, heightened, transcendent.  Wonderful words that fail to capture the essence of the experience.  This has been on my mind because I’ve been thinking about sacred spaces.  No matter how secular we may be, we all know such places exist.  They may be places significant to large numbers of people, or to a set of one.  Perhaps there are many kinds of sacred spaces and many ways that they may be made so.

The place where a significant event in life took place, for good, is recorded in that way our brains have of switching into slow-motion, high-attention mode.  Were we not so secular we might say something spiritual was going on.  Pilgrimage sites worldwide are often associated with what’s interpreted as a religious event.  Those of us who weren’t there at the time feel compelled to visit.  To breathe the air of that place.  To linger in wonder.  Is there something still there?  I tried desperately to feel this when I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  It was difficult with so very many other people there.  I went alone and I was thinking maybe something might happen.  Like what happened to me at the Church of All Nations next to Gethsemane.

As I was pondering this, many such sites came to mind.  The birthplaces or living spaces of great writers have always drawn me into such a reverie.  Standing in Poe’s house in Philadelphia, knowing that one of the world’s iconic writers saw these same walls, walked these same floors, but for him it was likely ordinary.  For the rest of us it’s something more.  Yet I’m no closer to defining it.  Thinkers like Otto had professions that included unstructured thinking time.  Many of us don’t have that luxury.  We feel the urge but the clock for our 925 keeps inexorably ticking, like the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards that make a place sacred.  Many of these places are far too personal to write about in a public place.  They await someone with the time and inclination to think on these things to give us to words to define them.


Masking Identity

Who am I, really?  Identity has been on my mind quite a bit during this pandemic.  With millions dying I suppose it’s important that “the officials” know who we are.  At the same time I don’t feel comfortable taking my mask off in front of strangers.  It’s kind of like a facial striptease that puts you at risk for some communicable disease.  Because I had to fly for Thanksgiving this year I got to put my Real ID to the test.  I removed my mask for the photo—at the DMV, of all places—so there was risk involved to prove that I am who I’ve always been.  When I went to get a Pennsylvania license three years ago, the system remembered me from when I got my permit and asked if I still lived in the county where that had occurred.  They seem to know a lot about me.

At the airport the TSA guy told me to take off my mask.  He had to confirm that I was the same person my Real ID stated I was.  I wish our government would tell me who I am.  And of course my passport decided to expire also during this pandemic.  I went to a local pharmacy to get my passport photo taken.  (I know you can do this at home, but you need a printer that handles photo paper.)  Then you can send the application in by mail.  How do they know it’s really me in the photo?  I had an uncanny experience many years ago when a visiting team from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) visited Nashotah House for an accreditation visit.  One of the inspectors looked very like me.  I think we both noticed the resemblance immediately.  It was like we were twins.  Later I found his photo on the school website and asked my pre-literate daughter who it was.  She said “Daddy.”

Who is that masked man?

So I’m standing here with my mask off in a store for confirmation that I am who I claim to be.  I wonder if this other guy’s photo were sent in would they know the difference?  In fact I’ve had the experience I suspect many people have had of being mistaken for someone else.  Helping a friend move to Kentucky after college, I had several people in a small town I’d never visited before identify me as Joe’s son.  I looked just like him.  Of course, that was way before the pandemic when our faces were public property.  Now I just wish I could put my mask back on so that I could feel a little less naked.


Not Shopping

Santa Claus arrived at the end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday.  I actually began seeing Christmas paraphernalia in stores before Halloween.  It feels like we could really use Christmas this year.  We all thought 2020 was a difficult year and 2021 hasn’t been much easier.  The capitalist response—so shallow, but it’s all we’re left with—is to shop to make yourself feel better.  Sometimes it’s the simple things: time off work, time with family, time for reading, time itself.  Time heals most things.  People, however, aren’t the most patient of creatures.  Our desires seem so urgent and cash or credit seems to offer a way of achieving them.  Black Friday is entirely from the business perspective.  A day off work to get people out and spending.  Outspending.

Black Friday has traditionally been one of my favorite days for staying home, reading and writing.  Indeed, Thanksgiving is the only annual four-day weekend most of us are given.  I haven’t used this day for shopping.  Crowds are about and so is an insidious virus that we can’t seem to contain.  It feels more comfy and secure to stay in my drafty house and use the time to recover from the capitalism that dominates the rest of my days.  A day to not shop.  A day to think.  The idea of having quiet holidays to ground oneself seems like a progressive idea.  We all find our own ways of centering, even if we don’t call it that.  For some I suppose that’s shopping, but that’s just not me.

This year I’m spending the day with extended family in Iowa.  I flew out on the busiest travel day of the year to ground myself in the heartland.  It’s a day I need not work and I need not shop.  I find my meaning elsewhere this Black Friday.  The term began with a negative connotation, referring to workers in the early fifties calling in sick that day in order to get a four-day weekend.  It was also used in the next decade to describe the traffic congestion as people went out to start their shopping.  It was really only in the eighties that the term took on its current meaning of a day when retailers go into the black by earning profits from the influx of cash the day brings.  Santa had come the previous day and wallets were open and those with the day off work wanted to spend it spending.  I’m here in Iowa, glad to be avoiding the stores and the contagion, and enjoying the quiet of not having to clock in.


Flight Path

It’s been some time since I was on a plane.  Or in a hotel.  These things seem strange and foreign to me now.  Covid-19 is now a fixture in life and we, as humans typically do, have adjusted.  Of course I was flying for Thanksgiving on the busiest travel day of the year.  Seeing all those people standing in line at 4:30 a.m. at the airport made my lifestyle seem a little less weird.  I’m used to being up at this time.  They did have to de-ice the plane at Lehigh Valley International Airport.  I’ve never been on a plane that was taking a shower before.  I also didn’t touch anything but my book.  And it seemed that those who “don’t believe in” masking weren’t making a fuss because you can’t win an argument with the FAA. I’m thankful for that.

I’d almost forgotten how to fly.  On the first leg of the journey I was the only one whose “hand-held device” was made of paper.  Connecting out of O’Hare, however, quite a few more books made an appearance.  I sit in front of a device all day at work, so on a rare day off I don’t really want to have to stare at a screen.  Although the total air time was under four hours I brought seven books in my personal item.  I finished one of them (the longest) on the trip.  I still have plenty of choices for the flight home on the weekend.  Thanksgiving, even more than Christmas, is the time for family gatherings.  We’re all vaccinated on this side, so it feels mostly safe.

This Thanksgiving I’m thankful that no turkeys were harmed on my account.  If you knew how “thanksgiving turkeys” are raised it’d put you off your feed, as the saying goes.  I’m also thankful that travel is possible, even if with added restrictions.  Frankly, I’m glad for them.  Anti-vaxxers don’t seem to realize that it’s not just themselves they’d be protecting, but others as well.  Vaccines and masks aren’t just about selfish desires.  Last year we couldn’t even consider traveling.  Covid-19 has changed the way we do things, perhaps permanently.  We can be thankful that we learn to adjust.  I’m no fan of crowds, but there was something a bit exhilarating about being among other goal-oriented individuals all focused on being with loved ones.  It gives me renewed faith in humanity, and that is something for which to be thankful.


It’s Thorpe, Jim

On a rainy fall day we found ourselves in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.  We’d been through the touristy town before, but had never had any luck finding parking so getting out to explore was problematic.  Named after perhaps the greatest all-round athlete America has ever produced, the town bore the American Indian name of Mauch Chunk prior to the communal name change.  Once the greatest eastern vacation attraction after Niagara Falls, it’s now a town that caters to a regular stream of tourists and supports the small, boutique shops that thrive in such an environment.  Whenever I’m in a new place, I look for books.  Perhaps an illness, it is one I have no wish to cure.  Sellers Books is small but I didn’t walk out empty-handed.

A few yards later a sign at Emporium of Curious Goods caught my eye.  A store of mystical, magical whimsy, it had a posted note saying the owner had been friends with Ed and Lorraine Warren.  I hadn’t anticipated such a thing—we were here with friends and really just expecting to enjoy the quaint ambiance.  Being October, nearly every house and shop on Broad Street was decorated for Halloween, creating that frisson that only this time of year offers.  I stepped inside the shop and looked around.  I asked the owner how he’d met the Warrens.  He said that many years ago they’d lectured at East Stroudsburg University.  Introducing himself, he’d invited them over to his place and soon they became long-time friends.  They agreed to do a talk there in Jim Thorpe.

The brief conversation made me aware that as much as reading reveals, it never conveys the full story.  The store advertised having all the Warrens’ books.  I have all of them myself, but I had never seen all of them together in a single store before.  I wished I had something magical or mystical to buy to support the owner so willing to share information, but I had little time to look around with friends waiting outside, probably wondering what I was doing in such a place to begin with.  The Warrens are both deceased but their legacy lives on through the Conjuring movies.  More than that, in the lives they’ve influenced.  Yes, they may have been using their fame as a way of making living, but many celebrities do that.  It doesn’t mean they were any less sincere in attempting to help people with their ghosts and demons.  A rainy day in October reveals so much.


Seedy Delivery

Call it a weird indulgence, for that it surely is.  I’ve been slowly re-collecting childhood books—really what we call “tween books” these days, but there were no tweens back then.  Since these are out of print and somewhat difficult to find, I order them when I can afford to, and have been doing so for over a decade now.  The latest one shipped from Minnesota, via the US Postal Service.  Since these are not easily replaced, I follow the tracking.  The seller indicated a delivery date of September 16-18, only to send an early delivery notice when it was mailed.  Indeed, I’d ordered this on the 8th and by the 10th it was in Pittsburgh.  In case you’re not familiar with Pennsylvania geography, I’ve sketched a map.

Pittsburgh is about 6 hours away from where I live.  It was now scheduled for delivery on the 11th.  I had my doubts.  I awoke on the eleventh to find that it had overshot and was now in Baltimore.  Baltimore is only about two-and-a-half hours away, but still, the thought that it could reach the local post office and get out for delivery that same day seemed slim.  The next day was Sunday, so I figured maybe Monday.  Sure enough, on Saturday the 11th it had reached the dreaded Lehigh Valley Distribution Center, in Allentown.  Allentown is only ten miles from here, within actual walking distance.  The tracking site said it would be delayed.  On the 14th it had been shipped back to Pittsburgh (where it had been less than a week before), from there to Warrendale (which I had to look up on a map), and from there to Johnstown.  Barring another flood, it was due here on the 16th.  Of course, it may have to go through the horror-inducing Lehigh Valley Distribution Center again.

That same center had shipped a package to East Stroudsburg, over thirty miles away, just the week before and had sent a notice that it had reached its final destination.  I’m not one for squandering money, but I would gladly buy the Lehigh Valley Distribution Center a map.  They could look and see that Bethlehem is a mere 20-minute drive to the east.  That could prove useful information.  The package arrived the 15th.  The next day I received a status update alert that it was out for delivery and would arrive that day.  I’m a Post Office booster.  I believe the government should fund the postal service adequately and quit trying to win elections by cheating.  And maybe they could throw in a map while they’re at it.  I’ve got one they can have for free.


Museum Time

It was a very strange feeling.  Wearing masks, yes, and socially distancing, we went to a museum.  Casting my mind back, I can’t recall the last time I was in a museum.  On a family visit to Ithaca we decided to go to The Museum of the Earth.  Ithaca is a small town, and this is a small museum, nevertheless the first place Google (or Ecosia) brought up for fossil identification was The Museum of the Earth.  On Saturdays a paleontologist is on hand to help identify the traces of life from millions of years ago that lie scattered around for anyone to pick up.  Collecting fossils has a treasure-hunting vibe to it, and it’s great to find anything beyond the usual, ubiquitous sea shell imprints.  Don’t get me wrong—I love sea shells with their symmetry and flowing lines.  Some of them even look like angel wings.  But there’s a draw to the unusual.

Some time back I’d found a fossil in the Ithaca area that I couldn’t identify.  It was Saturday, and we’d all received at least our first vaccination.  And I had to wait in line to get an identification.  It was cheering to see so many people—with limited, timed entry—coming to a museum.  The specialist confirmed this to be an interesting fossil.  She identified it as a bryozoan, ancient animals related to coral.  This one, she suggested, based on the age of rocks in this area, was likely Devonian.  The age of fishes.  I was glad I hadn’t wasted her time, and I was glad to have an expert eye on something that, let’s be honest, often functions like pareidolia to the laity.

Years ago I took my daughter to an open house day at the geology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  If it weren’t for the calculus requirements (and I even tried to teach myself calculus because of it), I was seriously considering going back to school to study geology.  There is an organic connection between biblical scholars interested in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and paleontology.  I get too busy, it seems, to go down to the local creek to look for fossils.  Perhaps it’s for the best because our house would be full of rocks (even more than it already is).  The earth is a great museum.  Even so, it felt like an alien activity, late in this pandemic, to remember what it’s like to explore these treasures indoors, with strangers.  It felt as if time was actually progressing.


Found and Lost

After the year that was 2020, I decided that I needed to read some books that might make me laugh.  That can sometimes be pretty difficult, just as finding books that scare me (unless they’re nonfiction) can be.  Turning to the internet (where else can we turn in these days of rare vaccinations?) Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent came up more than once.  I think I may have read some of his other work, but this is one of his earliest books.  Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but much of the humor seemed a bit cruel.  No doubt in America there are lots of things at which fun would be easy to poke, but we’ve become sensitive to others—perhaps overly so—perhaps to the point that even using the word “others” can leave you open to criticism. But still.

Bryson’s book is a classic travelog.  It’s the kind my family kept when we were able to travel.  We’ve still got a printed out copy of our journeys to significant places, stuck in an ersatz binder, awaiting notice perhaps.  We tried to keep it funny.  There’s something about travel that’s great for your sense of humor.  Bryson set out on two wings of a country-wide trip while back from England.  Starting at his home in Des Moines, Iowa, he drove south and east then up north and back to his starting point.  The second half of the trip, obviously, went west, to the south west before angling up through the high plains and back home.  

The book is hard to classify.  The cover on my copy says he was looking for the perfect small town, but mostly it just seemed to be driving around.  And hitting some big cities as well.  There were a few laugh-out-loud moments even for this dour reader, but mostly there were some smiles and a bit of sadness.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was the late 1980s.  In fact, I was living in the United Kingdom when the book came out, which is probably why I never really heard of it before.  I do, regardless of how well the humor works, enjoy a travelog.  You can learn a lot that way.  Many of the places Bryson visited I’d also been, but my impressions were somewhat kindlier.  As a kid I didn’t get to travel much (kinda like now) and seeing new places I was always awash in wonder.  Not everywhere is pristine, of course, but keeping notes always seems like a good idea.  And if you can get them published, you might even be able to make a living out of it. We all remember the freedom of the open road.


Bookstore Odyssey

Work isn’t the best place to express yourself.  Once a marketer asked for input from everyone concerning their favorite independent bookshop.  Well, I might’ve gone a bit overboard, admittedly.  I listed several, each with their attributes.  I was living in New Jersey at the time so The Bookworm in Bernardsville and The Labyrinth in Princeton featured large.  But so did Farley’s in New Hope.  And the Clinton Book Shop in, well,  Clinton.  Then my mind roved to the unfortunately deceased River Front Books in Binghamton.  Then back to Wisconsin where we lived within walking distance from Books and Company.  Then to Illinois before that, where Pages for All Ages was a hangout.  We’re spoiled here in the Lehigh Valley with the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem,  Book and Puppet in Easton, Let’s Play books in Emmaus, and plenty of used bookstores about.  And the Montclair Bookshop back in New Jersey—okay, I told you I went a bit overboard.

Ithaca, New York, is the very definition of a college town.  Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, it has a sizable student population.  It once boasted seventeen bookstores.  By the time we’d started visiting they were down to one indie new book store (Buffalo Street Books) and two used bookstores.  Since then one of the used stores has closed.  Like a phoenix, however, a new indie has opened: Odyssey.  On a recent trip to Ithaca we stopped in.  During a pandemic I feel compelled to make trips short, but there was a lot to see there.  Like most indies, it’s small.  As Andrew Laties notes in Rebel Bookseller, such shops thrive by becoming part of the community, and stocking books the community will buy.

Our visit, I suspect, proves his point.  If you set up shop in a university town you can stock intelligent books and make a living at it.  Despite the weather and the virus we weren’t the only customers in the store.  And we didn’t leave empty-handed.  The independent bookstore is a symbol of hope.  Books are not clutter.  Literacy is not dead!  As much as our beloved internet tries to tell us the future is digital, I like to open the door and step outside once in a while.  And leave my phone behind.  During this pandemic I’ve gone to four kinds of stores only: grocery, drug/necessity, hardware, and book stores.  The pandemic has been a shot in the arm for trade books—bored with staring at screens all day, people are starting to read actual books again.  I’m not naive enough to think it will last beyond Covid-19, but I just remembered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair and the Town Book Store in Westfield…


Preserving Culture

When I travel (remember travel?) I try to visit the places of famous writers.  It doesn’t matter much whether I’ve read a lot of their material; I know kindred spirits when I feel them.  Last summer—the one before the pandemic—I had to make a business trip to Oxford.  Now Oxford has a long, long list of literary illuminati, and I didn’t have much free time.  My hotel, however, turned out to be just a couple of blocks from the house of J. R. R. Tolkien.  One patch between meetings, I wandered over to the house.  It’s behind a high wall, so you can’t see much.  Like most European private homes, it isn’t ostentatious—over here we like to make it obvious when we’re wealthy.  In any case, I stood as long as a stranger can comfortably stand outside someone else’s house and tried to commune with the spirit of the former occupant.

Just the other day I noticed a New York Times headline that stated a movement is afoot in merry old England to purchase Tolkien’s house to make it a museum.  Although there’s no scientific way to prove it, people are somehow connected to the places they live.  There’s no other sensation like returning to your home town.  If, for some strange reason, anyone wishes to recall me after I’m gone (perhaps my pen name will take off someday), they’ll find precious little.  Not one of my pre-college homes still stands.  Not that that’s that unusual in the low rent district.  Still, when I visit my hometown, small as it is, almost nothing of me remains but it still feels like I belong.

I can’t say that I felt much other than my own awe at standing outside Tolkien’s house.  It’s on a residential street, and people were driving and walking by.  I was the only one who seemed to be hanging about.  Probably a bit suspicious-looking wearing a tweed jacket and in general appearing like a displaced academic.  Much of the tourism industry, however, is based on the draw of certain locations because someone famous lived there.  We want to be in touch with them.  Show our respects, perhaps.  If visiting Oxford weren’t always a work occasion for me, I could quite enjoy wandering its literary haunts and ending up for a leisurely afternoon spent in Blackwells.  We congregate in such places for a reason.  I’ve lost track of all the authors’ homes I’ve visited over the years.  Each time, I’m compelled to say, I’m glad someone thought to preserve them.


The Good of Others

On a recent trip to visit family in upstate New York, the Sunday we had to leave (for work Monday is an implacable law), we decided to have lunch in a local park.  The weather was fine and there was plenty of social distancing, given the size of the grounds.  After a nice picnic and stroll, we realized it was getting late to start out in order to get home by my oddly early retiring time.  We headed back to our hosts’ car only to find it wouldn’t start.  They had a new battery and so we popped the hood and hoped to find something obviously wrong as we waited for the long response time for AAA in a rural area on a weekend.  We were a little concerned because we still had a long drive and no real way to get back to our own car, parked at our hosts’ residence.  A stranger came up and asked if we were having trouble.  Listening to the symptoms he said, “Do you mind?”  Putting his head under the hood, he said, “I’m a mechanic.”  He had our host try again and the car started right up.  He refused to take payment and wouldn’t even give his name.

Despite the fear the Republican Party tries so hard to spread, it has been my experience that good Samaritans abound.  When I’ve had car trouble far from home, I’ve never waited long beside the road before a stranger has stopped and asked if they could help.  Technology may make us feel more self-sufficient (we have smartphones and can call for our own help), but it doesn’t always work that way.  My wife had accidentally left her phone at our hosts’ place, and I’d forgotten to charge mine so the battery was depleted.  Uber would require an active, charged phone and our hosts were using theirs to communicate with AAA.  If the stranger hadn’t stopped by we would’ve been stuck, likely for hours.

I oftenconsider how Calvinistic GOP thinking can be—assuming the “total depravity” of everyone and declaring that we must be kept in check by laws that maintain outdated concepts of both humanity and justice.  To be sure, there are dangerous individuals out there.  Would you want Trump to stop by if you were having car trouble?  What selfless behavior could you expect from that quarter?  Sucker!  In general, however, people are good.  They are motivated by what they think is right.  We’re in a pandemic.  The mechanic didn’t know us (we outnumbered him), he had no obligation to help.  Good Samaritans exist, and they are frequently found outside the yellowed leaves of Scripture.

Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, via Wikimedia Commons


Twain Shall Meet

On a slightly hazy fall day, when the autumnal colors were alive, we stopped in Elmira.  To understand the significance of this stop, I should explain that from the time my daughter could appreciate it (and probably even before) we used to make fall literary trips.  We would take a long weekend and drive to where a famous author had lived.  Laura Ingalls Wilder in Pepin, Wisconsin, or Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri.  When we moved east we visited Edna St Vincent Millay at Austerlitz, New York, and Washington Irving in Sleepy Hollow.  More recently, in the spring, we went to see Rod Serling in Interlaken, New York.  So it was that we stopped in Elmira, New York, where Mark Twain rests.  I had always assumed Samuel Clemens was buried in Missouri, but his most productive literary period was his time in upstate New York, and it is here he remains.

His tombstone was covered with pennies and a few higher denomination coins, a rock or two, and a guitar pick.  People want to show their respects to the writers who’ve meant something to them.  I find this a moving tribute.  I suspect it happens at the tombstones of many famous people, but in Highgate Cemetery in London we found Douglas Adam’s small plot filled with pens stuck in the ground as mementos.  I travel through the world lightly, seldom carrying anything extra with me.  Somehow I never stop to think to bring a memory to the cemetery.  Fortuitously I had found a penny on the ground the morning we left for Elmira and I placed it among the others on Twain’s marker.  

What would make the appropriate calling card to leave?  I often wonder that.  If I had such a token, I suspect I would feel the need to revisit the various cemeteries of years past to leave a sign of my respect.  There are lots of them.  Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore.  George Orwell in Sutton Courtenay.  H. P. Lovecraft in Providence.  Is there anything that ties them all together?  Pens seem an obvious choice, but stones are far more traditional (especially in Jewish settings).  The tradition is traced back to building cairns in biblical times, and the idea survives in that stones are more permanent than flowers and are a sign of respect.  Writers often have more elaborate items left, but it’s clear that they are removed from time to time by the grounds keepers.  Before I visit my next literary grave, I’ll give some thoughts to symbols and tokens and the importance of celebrating writing.


Almost Ancestors

During the Covid-19 crisis, cemeteries seem to be safe places.  Not too many people are in them, at least not people that can spread the virus, and they always provide grounds for rumination.  Besides, being outdoor spaces they can get you someplace outside the same four walls you see all the time.  My wife and I both have an interest in genealogy.  We’ve worked on our family trees and even try to keep our Reunion software up-to-date.  This past weekend we visited a family burial plot in upstate New York.  My wife’s family has a more accomplished pedigree than mine does, and one of her ancestors here actually merited an obelisk and was written up in local histories as a noteworthy member of the community.  I also have ancestry in upstate, and we’ve traveled to some of their sites in the past, although their markers are usually harder to find.

Being in a cemetery, the logic of ancestor worship suggests itself.  Without these people history as we know it would’ve been different.  Without those who are our direct ancestors we wouldn’t even be here pondering our own insignificance.  We wish these headstones could talk, saying more than the names, vital dates, and perhaps a quote from the Bible.  We listen, hoping to gain knowledge of who they were.  It seems to me that cemetery histories would be a boon to genealogists.  For those of us whose predecessors were buried in small towns, such guides could be a real boon.  As it is, Find A Grave dot com is often a helpful resource, but who wouldn’t like to be written up in an actual book?  Network reception often isn’t great out here in rural America.

Graveyards are gateways to the past.  In a world that feels like it’s changing way too fast, it seems right to have these places—these sanctuaries—to stop and reflect.  They represent lives lived.  Peaceful after the trauma of day-to-day angst and struggle.  Unfortunately the pandemic is daily adding to the number of those who’ll be buried in cemeteries across the nation and around the world.  Although somewhat preventable, we have no national will to stop the tragedy.  So it is I find myself staring at a monument erected to someone I never knew, but without whom my life would’ve been vastly different.  It’s a sunny day and I’m outside amid a crowd that can cause me no harm, but who, at times like this, inspire me.