Belonging

You never know where you might find yourself, but wherever it is it’ll cost you some money.  Well, at least in this instance it did.  Nashotah House sent me packing just as we were thinking about college for our daughter.  It took several years to find any kind of full-time position again, and when university time began I had had a full salaried job for a total of one year of the last seven.  Not ideal, of course.  I remember sitting (again) in the financial aid office, explaining the situation and, as it often goes in higher education, receiving no mercy.  As much as I remember the conversation, I don’t recall a photographer in the room.   There must’ve been, though, since I recently showed up on the Binghamton University website.

I had, of course, applied for a job or two there.  When out of state tuition is riding on such a deal, however, I doubt there’s any way to get considered.  I actually like Binghamton University quite a lot.  I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t pour its money into a football team and that it has the reputation of being a “Public Ivy” school.  I even like the campus removed from city bounds—just like Nashotah House.  I did end up paying them quite a bit of lucre through the years, even as my own alma maters were asking alms.  Higher education is a funny world.  Standing somewhere between a money-making venture and a site of education for its own sake.  Many professors don’t realize just how privileged they are to have jobs like that.

Upstate New York, although I’ve never lived there, is one of my ancestral homes.  My grandfather and his family had lived in the area at least as far back as the 1770s.  I tried to convey that sense of connection in my application, many years ago now.  Academia doesn’t put much stock in the idea of belonging, I guess.  It has become far too businesslike for that.  Binghamton was also the town in which Rod Serling, one of my childhood heroes, grew up.  There seemed to be so many reasons to be in that area.  Eventually I settled for life in my own native Pennsylvania.  People sense, although academics less than others apparently, that they belong in a place.  And if you can’t actually be there, you can still spend your money in any location.  I’ve now got a picture to prove it.

The Zone

My youth—who am I kidding?—my life has been a search for father figures.  Since I grew up with television, many of them came from the tube.  The professor from Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Rogers, Barnabas Collins, and Rod Serling.  Serling was like the father I couldn’t remember in that he was always smoking.  But unlike my father, Serling had an imagination in sync with mine.  The Twilight Zone was in reruns by the time I caught up, but it gave me an odd kind of happiness.  The sort that you had as a kid after the bath was over and you were wrapped up snuggly and warm in a bathrobe, and you got to watch one of your favorite shows before going to bed.  I discovered Serling as a writer when I was in Junior High School.  He was right up there next to Ray Bradbury, in my book.

I have to admit to feeling anxious as I read Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.  You see, she actually was his child and I’m afraid of learning too much about those I put on my personal pedestals.  Her book, however, didn’t disappoint.  Serling lived a writer’s life, something I’ve coveted since I was a kid.  If I couldn’t have a father, at least I could write about life as I saw it.  I still write fiction inspired by, among others, Rod Serling.  Spending much of my time in Binghamton and Ithaca for my own family reasons, I was only obliquely aware of how much I was traversing the region Serling considered home.  As I read his daughter’s autobiography—or is it a biography?  Who can tell the difference?—I was inexorably drawn in.  Fathers and daughters can be the best of friends.

Sometimes I wonder if those who know writers the best are their true fans.  I don’t mean groupies or the like, but rather those whose lives have been transformed by their words.  I’m reminded of Evermore, written by a relative of Edgar Allan Poe.  Family, it is true, see a side of a person that the reader does not.  But who are we, really?  Those of us who write may be saying more in our fiction than we care to admit even to those who know us well.  Rod Serling recognized dimensions well, I suspect.  A writer’s life requires sacrifice and keeping things hidden.  Anne Serling’s book is a gift to those who write, even if it is about someone else’s father.

Bookish Dreams

Driving into upstate New York via interstate 81 you’ll find a remarkable rest stop.  To put this into context, I should say that my wife and I have driven from Maine to Washington (not on a single trip) and from Wisconsin to Louisiana and South Carolina.  We’ve laid down considerable mileage together, and never have we encountered such a nice rest stop.  Clean, modern, and featuring local goods for sale, it’s a loving homage to the southern tier, the New York outside the city.  One of the features of this unusual facility is a terrazzo floor fresco highlighting the various points of interest within a couple hours’ drive.  Mostly when we stop here we look toward Binghamton and Ithaca, the cities we most frequently visit.  We stop to use the restroom and then drive on.

When we stopped over the holidays, however, we lingered a little bit.  There’s a display on Mark Twain—he lived in Elmira, New York for a time—and there’s an in-ground plaque outside to Rod Serling.  I spent some time looking over the points of interest in the floor map when my wife pointed out a site listed as Hobart Book Village of the Catskills.  I couldn’t believe that I’d been in this building dozens of times but had never bothered to look that far east.  Curious, I did a web search once we reached out destination.  There is, it turns out, a village in upstate known for its main street of book stores.  What perhaps impressed me even more was that it was considered significant enough to be given a kind of “Hollywood star” treatment in what is an often overlooked part of the state.

Now I can’t say what my impressions of Hobart are.  I’ve never been there, having just learned of it on a recent roadtrip.  What I can say is that my world suddenly began to feel just a bit more friendly knowing that such a place exists.  We live in a country that could indeed use a bit more positive influence.  Some of my happiest memories involve bookstores.  Back in my teaching days we made regular autumnal literary weekend trips, visiting sites haunted by writers.  Often we’d find an independent bookstore near such sacred places.  To many, I realize, this would smack of nonsense, but to those ensconced in literary dreams, it created pleasant memories.  You feel something in the air as you stand near the house or grave of an author.  Places are made sacred by what transpires within them.  The writing of books shapes the very space-time around them.  At least it does for those who even find inspiration in an interstate rest stop.

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

Alas, Binghamton

“Store Closing” the signs veritably shout. “Everything Must Go.” It’s something I hate to see in an economically depressed town. The tragedy is redoubled when it’s an independent bookstore. While undergoing the ritual of returning our daughter to college after the holiday break, we were driving through Binghamton, appropriately enough, at twilight. In that first, lonely freshman year we’d discovered River Read books in downtown. Like many indies, it was small. Intimate even. I never walked out, however, without some treasure that I wouldn’t have found in a larger store. River Read eventually became an irregular habit based on parents’ weekends and academic breaks, and I’ve come to depend on it after a long drive across three state lines. Once again, however, the lack of concern regarding reading takes another victim.

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In the ancient world there was a poetic genre scholars now call the lament for a fallen city. I’m that way about bookstores. Amazon has proven wonderfully capable of getting things to me quickly. Obscure tomes, sometimes. Since our nearest independent is a 25-minute drive, this is often a necessity—I can spare 25 minutes only on a weekend, and then, only select ones. Ironically, just on the way to Binghamton we stopped at the Bookworm in Bernardsville, New Jersey. We try to help them survive. My mind goes back to fond occasions outside the home and how often they involve bookstores. Finding a new one. Returning to one already well loved. Even, back in the day, Borders. In a pique of nostalgia I starting searching the web pages of past favorites. Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Farley’s in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Pages for All Ages in Savoy, Illinois. Ah, alas, the latter has also closed its doors forever. The store I’d visit after a long commute to Nashotah House and back, looking for something I really want to read.

The neon after dark is like an alien invader in my car. River Read is closing. The liquor stores and “gentlemen’s clubs” seem to be fine. The cars up here sure weave around on the road a lot after 9 p.m. on a Saturday. It’s not just here, I’m sure. I’m seldom out this late any more. Perhaps, even likely, this has been a long time coming. Civilization unable to support its foundation. Literacy, after all, spread the common ideals we used to share. Presidents united us and we were eager to read and every town wore its own bookstore like a badge of honor. I’ve seen the signs and I lament the fall of yet another fondly recalled city.

St. Ghost

HauntedSouthernTierSince they combine two of my soft spots—local history and ghost stories—books telling the tales of home-town specters are compelling in a homespun way. On a visit to Binghamton, New York, I picked up Haunted Southern Tier by Elizabeth Tucker at the local bookstore (I have a hard time passing up an independent bookstore anywhere). Those of us at least a little familiar with upstate New York know that the southern tier is not strictly defined, but it is a recognizable section of the Empire State that runs just north of the Keystone. I was drawn to the book by Elizabeth Tucker’s name; she is the author of Haunted Halls, a book I reviewed earlier on this blog, about college campus ghosts. These local travel guides tend to focus on the weird and whimsical, and aren’t meant to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, the connection between ghosts and religion is tangible in just about any part of the world, no matter what one believes.

This fun read brings a number of explicit religious points to the surface. One involves the strange phenomenon of haunted churches. Given that many varieties of Christianity offer Heaven as a reward immediately following death, having a ghost hanging around a church seems strangely disingenuous. Perhaps that’s why few churches admit to such things. Another interesting tie-in to religion comes in Tucker’s section on roadside ghosts. Stories of spectral hitchhikers are quite ancient, but I had never considered them biblical. Tucker mentions one such instance in the Book of Acts, and upon reflection I realized that she may be onto something. The account of Philip converting the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the odder tales of the early Christian movement. Philip explains Isaiah’s prophecies to the chariot-riding dignitary who gives him a lift, and baptizes the visiting Ethiopian before mysteriously disappearing. Could this be the prototype for the vanishing hitchhiker folklore theme?

Perhaps the most serious of the religious connections in the book, however, has to do with St. Bonaventure University. For those familiar with Thomas Merton’s life story, St. Bonaventure will not be unexpected. Merton taught at the school as he was struggling with his identity that led him to become one of the most renowned Trappist monks in the world—one who spoke approvingly of Buddhism, to boot. Merton is not said to haunt the university, but his presence there at one time has endowed this Catholic school with a sense of spiritual gravitas. The ghosts come from elsewhere.

Books on ghosts are a guilty pleasure with a serious undertone. End of life issues, once we move beyond the medical, are the unquestioned provenance of religion. Whether or not there are any ghosts out there, religion will claim the final word on afterlife. And only those who experience it will ever really know.

Twilight Zones

It was twilight last night when I drove into Binghamton. My thoughts naturally turned to The Twilight Zone since one of my childhood heroes, Rod Serling, had grown up here. Binghamton University was also the professional home of novelist John Gardner, of Grendel fame. Seeing the colorful leaves fading to the gray of a falling evening, I thought of how evocative a word “twilight” is. We are creatures with an in-born fear of the dark and twilight is our last hope of light before the night settles in. Maybe it was having just so recently read Grendel, but twilight and gods together brought “the twilight of the gods” to mind (it might have helped that a sudden thunderstorm broke out at the moment). When I first saw the word Götterdämmerung, in junior high school, I thought it must be a potent swear word, what with all those doubled letters and umlauts. My German teacher calmly explained that it was the fourth and final cycle of Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen and it translated to Twilight of the Gods. It is itself a translation of the Norse word Ragnarök, with its single umlaut. Even though it wasn’t swearing, the concept sent a shiver through me anyhow.

I’ve never sat through a performance of The Ring, but I have heard the music with its famous Ride of the Valkyries. Based on Norse and Germanic mythologies, The Ring has deep roots in a pagan mythology where night plays a prominent role. Although J. R. R. Tolkien denied having been inspired by Wagner’s work (there was a certain political incorrectness to it, along about the early-to-mid-1940s), both four-part cycles draw on the Norse mythology that continues to fascinate us with movies like Thor and The Avengers. What impacted my young mind the most, however, was the very concept that the gods could be defeated. How was such a thing even possible? We were raised to believe good conquers evil. How can the gods—even pagan ones—lose? It was a world-distorting concept for someone yet to face high school.

Last night I was literally in the twilight zone. Having driven through the Endless Mountains region where autumn’s reds and yellows inspired me with just how colorful death can be (a European friend once confessed to me that driving along a wooded road in Pennsylvania his first autumn here he had to pull over and weep for the beauty), twilight was already on my mind. October fades into the twilight of the year. The mythologies of the northern races, the Norse and the Celts, seem almost obsessed with the ominous, growing darkness. There is a beauty to it, but also an abiding fear. Are the gods powerful enough? It was a question first raised when my eye fell on that striking word Götterdämmerung that somehow became a part of me.

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