New England Child

I grew up a New England child and though I’ve lived many places since, my memories of its moods abide: salt spray air; the nocturnal thunder of pounding waves as I drifted into sleep; Yankee villages, replete with white steepled churches and verdant commons; stone walls; Concord’s Old Manse, its bridge, and Lexington, where my country labored into birth; summer expeditions to Rockport’s boat-laden harbor and wharf artistry; harvesting clam shells on a Salem beach; warm chowder on cold days; Cape Cod and sand dunes; Martha’s Vineyard and sea-drenched Nantucket; Ted Williams, the Celtics and Bruins; the Boston Pops and Freedom Trail; undulating rural roadways framed by mountains, freshly painted in autumnal hues; snowfall and hushed landscape; my beloved Newburyport, where I went to school and schoolmates, their faces luminous, triumphant over time. My speech betrays its accents. This summer, it’s Maine again—lighthouses, pristine beaches, Camden, Bar Harbor, Acadia. Ice cream! The poet Wordsworth wrote that “the child is father of the man.” I can’t speak for others, but in my case, it’s true. —rj

New England Memories

York Beach, Maine
York Beach, Maine

Sometimes a long delay gives you better perspective. I hadn’t been back home to New England in eleven years until our recent trip. Thinking of Thomas Wolfe’s dictum, “You can’t go home again,” I didn’t really know if my previous enthusiasm about the place could withstand a revisit after being away so long.

But it did:

There was exciting Boston with its history, culture, and trail-blazing architecture. And being a retired prof, I salivated thinking of those 100-plus colleges and universities within its 4.5 million metropolitan area. Unfortunately, we could only spend one night there, but at least Karen and I got over to Fenway for a night game to watch our beloved Red Sox. Yeah, they lost; in fact, got routed, but we were compensated big time exploring the Prudential Center’s seemingly endless mall with its myriad shops and culinary haunts.

Then Rowley, founded in 1639, where I lived several years. My cousin, Susan, more like a sister than a cousin, still lives there. Sharing memories was just the right brew amid the town’s quiet ambience with its 5000 population, though only 35-miles north of Boston. It had 1500 people back in 1957 when I left, yet retains its delightful small town feel. Like so much of New England’s sleepy rural towns nestled in bucolic splendor, time hasn’t played its heavy hand.

And then our visit for a week to Maine with its inviting beaches at York Beach and Ogunquit, “lobsta,” “chowda,” freshly caught fish and fried clams. As a child I had loved the nearby sea, whether living in Rowley or visiting New Hampshire or going ” down” to Maine as New Englanders like to put it.

The same crescendoes of waves hurling themselves against the rocky shore echoing the tidal poundings that I could hear sometimes from my bed at night in Rowley just six miles away from the Massachusetts shore..

No, we didn’t get to my favorite part of Maine reaching up to Boothbay, Camden, Bar Harbor and resplendent Acadia National Park. I’ve yet to see jagged Mt. Katahdin with its spectacular hiking trails and grand vistas, or the many forest secluded lakes that comprise northern Maine’s landscape that fascinated Thoreau; but it’s all there to be drawn upon for future visits, perhaps more often because I’m frankly running low on time.

Places yet to renew my spirit in an increasingly savage world of human abode, New England with its mountains, lakes, thundering seas, white steepled churches, long history where time gets honored over newness; sailing ventures to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket; 4th of July bonfires and the Boston Pops along the Charles; Harvard Square teeming with bookstores; nature’s autumnal artistry transforming foliage into flaming hues of red and flamboyant orange; jazz festivals in Newport and on Yale’s green; and, yes, the fall of snow bringing hush to a busy world.

After so long absence, I’ve been like a lover returning home, renewed in spirit, “surprised by joy” as Wordsworth put it. Somethings remain stubborn against time’s ceaseless push and you really do find you can go home again.

–rj

 

Winter Discontent: Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light”

dickinsonI’m sitting here in our sunroom, looking out this afternoon on our backyard, smothered with frost. We had our first snow cover a week ago, which came early to Kentucky.

I’m a warm weather lover, and while those around me complain about heat, I say, more is better.

You’d think coming from New England, I’d be more tolerant of snow and ice and lashing wind, but I can tell you that over time I’m liking old man winter much less.

But neither am I some isolated crank in finding winter oppressive.

Take fellow New Englander, Emily Dickinson, for example, that fervent champion of spring and summer, and with them, birds, flowers and even snakes populating her many poems, emissaries of nature’s cornucopia and the inherent goodness of its plentitude.

Understandably, she didn’t soften her distain toward winter in a poem I’ve memorized, “There’s a certain Slant of light.”

I’ve always admired this poem, like so many others she wrote, cerebral, observant, brief, but dependably engaging, centered in detail, redolent in ambience.

Here’s the poem, followed with my commentary:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

 Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

 None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.

 Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, this one deals with death, as ultimately revealed in its closing line. Keenly aware of the temporal, she always dreaded saying good bye to not only visiting friends, but the passage of the temperate seasons.

Appropriately, the poem’s ambience is foregrounded in emerging darkness on a winter afternoon, signified in the angular, or slanted, solstice light. While “Slant” suggests not only a way of seeing things, it more likely connotes a cosmic knife that wounds, amplified in the second stanza’s “hurt” and “scar” allusions.

In the first, stanza, however, this visual image of a slanting light evolves into one of sound, the light being like the “Heft” of Cathedral Tunes, heft denoting heaviness, or the solemnity of perhaps tolling bells or funeral music.

The speaker’s reference here to cathedrals plainly suggests the poem exceeds depiction of a gloomy New England winter’s day, entering into metaphysical concerns embracing religion, God, and mortality.

Dickinson, after all, was not only a rebel in writing non-traditional verse, both formally and thematically, but in her strident skepticism when it came to the assurances of Christianity.

In stanzas two and three, the persona traces the cosmic sources of the day’s oppressive gloom to Deity (1.e., “heavenly hurt,” “an imperial affliction /Sent us of the air”).

As to the specific nature of the transient day’s mood, it is rightfully left ambiguous (“None may teach it–Any–“), underscoring the persona’s angst in a cosmos ruled at best by a silent deity, who allows death’s intrusion into every aspect of nature.

The speaker can only offer analogies in attempting to articulate her resulting emotional dissonance in response to the waning light, since words often prove ineffectual in rendering matters of our psyche:  “We can find no scar,/But internal difference/Where the Meanings are.”

The persona’s allusion to the Book of Revelation with its apocryphal judgments, “T’is the Seal Despair,” underscores the angst of this “imperial affliction” in its psychological reign.

In the concluding stanza, two additional analogies appear, the first employing personification:  “When it comes’ the Landscape listens–/Shadows hold their breath–”

The pronoun “it” brings us back to the slanted light of the initial stanza, reminding us again that we are at the moment when the winter sun is about to slip below the horizon. With anxious anticipation, afternoon shadows stand at attention like sentries.

In the final analogy, the speaker breaks through with simile to the source of her angst in the sun’s passage:  “When it goes, ’tis like the Distance/On the look of Death–”

Or like viewing a corpse, distanced from every human concern.

In the poem’s absence of any proffered reunion or resurrection, Dickinson’s deep vein of skepticism is readily apparent, despite her Puritan forbears and living in a culture still permeated with conservative Christian belief.

But it didn’t come easily to Dickinson, earning my admiration for her candid questioning of cherished communal beliefs. In an early letter, she would confess to “an aching void in my heart which I am convinced the world cannot fill.”

Though often thought of as eccentric, preferring solitude to company, the truth is Dickinson relished her family, had close friends as her extensive correspondence confirms, and received occasional visitors.

Separation from those she loved was always acutely stressful.

And death, of course, which came early and often in her time, was the ultimate ransacker of human bonds. In a three year period she would lose some forty-six friends and relatives.

I share her sensibility when it comes to winter. I miss Nature’s teeming sights, sounds, and smells: my flowers in variegated hues blooming proudly, attended to by murmuring bees; the smell of Spring lilacs; the taste of fresh berries; chickadees in their yellow jackets at the bird feeder, impervious to the wind.

Looking out my window at a checkered landscape of grays and whites on yet another eclipsed day of light on a winter afternoon, I grieve their absence and share the sense of pervasive temporality that so haunted Dickinson.

And thus, like her, I relish the return of every spring, enjoying what I can, while I’m able, and with what light remains.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Love Affair with Vermont

vermont2

I can’t say how it began, but I know I’ve always had this love affair with Vermont, even though I’ve never lived there.  I suspect it has a lot to do with its mountain greenery, since I’ve always been partial to mountains, those silent sentries walling out an octane world fulsome with pursuit and possession, safeguarding neat valleys of Yankee towns and villages anchored by white steepled churches.

I grew up in Massachusetts with vistas much like this, and Vermont, New England at its best, not far away.  I can’t think of a wooded vista excelling that stretch of aerial road known as U. S. 9 connecting Vermont’s  quaint Bennington and Brattleboro towns in the south that I used to travel often.

A few years back, or 2005, I finally canvassed the state right up to the Canadian border before twisting back to the Massachusetts coast by way of New Hampshire’s lofty White Mountains.  One special delight was visiting Swanton, just south of the Canadian border.  My grandparents had called it home.

Retaining its small population contributes to the state’s Edenic luster, despite the continuous threat of emigres from New York and Massachusetts, not infrequently buying up commanding views, cutting trees, and building spacious palaces of material privilege.

In Vermont box store giants are rare, and thus town centers of mom and pop stores prosper and prove gathering places.  Smallness and simplicity turn back the clock.

I like the democracy of these towns with selectmen, not mayors, held to account by their  citizens in weekly meetings of equals.

vermont3

For many of us, Vermont means dairy farms, cradled among gentle hills, producing cheeses by the score; undulating countryside redolent with flaming fall foliage and winter’s maple syrup like no where else.  But it’s also a place of considerable waterways, despite being New England’s only landlocked state.  Every town seems to have its murmuring stream or running river, which sometimes menace human artifacts with storms like last year’s Sandy.  And then there’s Lake Champlain, America’s sixth largest lake, 120 miles long, 14 miles across at its widest point and 400 feet deep.  What grabs me most are its myriad covered bridges, more than anywhere else, archives of a past of horse-drawn carriages catching shelter from cacophonous clouds unleashing summer deluge.

Apart from scenic splendor and sanctuary replete with serenity, I like the state’s progressiveness.  Vermont, by the way, is the only state represented in Congress by a socialist, registered as an Independent.  Small as it is, no state ranks higher in promoting the welfare of its citizens.  It was the first to abolish slavery.  It was also first in granting women the right to vote in 1880.  Unlike neighboring Massachusetts which recently blinked under religious pressure, Vermont has now joined just Oregon and Washington in passing death with dignity legislation.  Vermont was the first state to allow civic unions and, later, gay marriage.   Looking towards the future, it’s promoting a single payer, non-profit health system akin to European and Canadian models.  Concerned about climate change, it has joined eight other states in offering rebate incentives to purchasers of electric cars.

At times, I think of Vermont as almost another country independent of the body politic. In fact, for fourteen years, it was just that–a sovereign nation before joining the Union.  Funny I should write this, but when I was in my twenties I had looked to New Zealand as my deliverance from a meaningless Asian war, burning cities, and assassinations of progressive leaders, including a president who gave possibility to Camelot.  New Zealand responded with immigrant status and employment, yet I didn’t go, for my American roots lay deeper than I knew.

A few years ago, I visited New Zealand and beautiful Taranaki which would have been my home.  I happened to meet several American ex-pats, one of whom shared that California had grown stale for him with its exponential growth in population and social burden, despoiled environment and plighted cities, accelerating crime and sky high taxes, inflated mortgages and a growing economic divide.

I wish now I had asked him if he needed to go so far, even as I had once thought of doing.  Why not Oregon, Washington, Montana?  Why not Vermont?

I wish I had asked myself that question when blessed with those options uniquely granted to the young.

–rj

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